300 Seconds with Vicky Smith NOW talks to the founder of Earth Changers

300 Seconds with Vicky Smith
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Vicky Smith is the founder of Earth-Changers.com, a platform to promote positive impact tourism. She’s headed up destinations, marketing, digital development and e-commerce for tour operators, travel agents and media, published an acclaimed academic thesis in volunteer tourism, conservation and community development, is a qualified safari guide and trustee of a sustainable development charity.

One word that describes You?

Determined.

What is your personal indulgence?

Travel. Time rather than luxury.

What project are you most proud of when it comes to sustainability?

My start-up, www.Earth-Changers.com – a curated collection of positive impact tourism – and being voted Travelmole UK Responsible Travel & Tourism Website in 2019, a huge unexpected win for me, up against global industry veterans. 

Covid-19 has been called the Great Reset … what does this mean for you?  If you had to distil it into just 3 key words, what would they be?

Reconnection, Revaluation, Regeneration.

We have gone over the dreaded tipping points and our actions in 2021 will determine if 2030 will be relatively hopeful for a stable future. As governments allocate the 10 trillion-dollar budget for recovery programs worldwide in 2021, how are you using the power of your vote and your voice to ensure this goes to companies that can address the climate emergency, collapsing ecosystems, deficits on social justice and racial equalities.

Working in tourism since the mid ‘90s managing destinations and tour operations, I witnessed first-hand its negative impacts on people and places, and in the Alps in particular, how the environment was changing. Seeing permafrost melt shocked me, I tried to manage tourists behaving culturally inappropriately and saw external holiday companies profiteering from locals with exploitative pay and conditions and extractive supply chains. Back in UK head offices, heading up web development, marketing and e-commerce, I experienced how big travel brands badly treated staff, in contradiction to publicly stated values. I loved to travel but didn’t want to promote that industry.

I took a decade from the mid ‘00s to move to responsible tourism. I travelled to research and volunteered abroad in conservation and community development to fully understand the issues. I worked in volunteer tourism and charity challenges, leading trips and marketing, at the coal face with local communities and consumers. I qualified as a ranger in Africa, studied a Masters and wrote an acclaimed published thesis on greenwashing. I worked for commercial companies and NGOs in sustainable tourism certification, accreditation and conservation, all the while organising monthly responsible tourism sector meetups and weekly Twitter chats for years.

I launched Earth Changers in 2017: Other companies weren’t concerned enough with truly sustainable tourism, diluting sustainability for profitability, and NGOs didn’t understand the B2C travel market and marketing requirements, but it was clear consumers and the industry needed education and advice. Short of being able to use my expertise and voice through others, I knew I had to start my own site.

I write, daily share information on social media, speak at consumer and industry events, and advocate, advise on and promote sustainable tourism, in general and specific trips, and work on select consultancy projects.

From early days, Earth Changers was authorised by the UN World Tourism Organisation as a solution for #IY2017, the Year of Tourism for Sustainable Development, and in 2019 I was invited to be an Ambassador for the UK Government Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs’ #YearOfGreenAction.

I’m driven by 2 sides of the same freedom coin: adventure, connecting with people and places; and inequality – which represses freedoms – of wealth within & between countries, of gender, of race, of climate impacts, of land ownership, access to capital… -inequalities side by side with tourism, which has the power to equalise.

I’m not a materialistic person, vote with my wallet and personally live as responsibly, ethically and organically as I can, choosing local, sustainable supply, quality over quantity and on a need-not-want basis, whether travel, food or fashion. I loathe plastic, but like many am still working at getting it out of my life, and wish I could compost, but my small urban dwelling & location doesn’t allow.

Are you an activist at heart?  Which movement/s are you supporting to drive systemic change, get to carbon zero, and/or stand for social justice?

I never thought of myself as an activist, but have been called that by others recently. I’m fairly straight up and, working for my own business, can say what I like – not like having to work ‘on-brand’ for employers: my brand is my thoughts. I lend my support to movements that closely align with Earth Changers values, such as The Long Run, the Future of Tourism Coalition, Tourism Declares Climate Emergency and other climate initiatives.

I’m also a founding member of a cross-sector ethical business network, help develop the European Ecotourism Network and support the Global Ecotourism Network, plus am a pro bono board director trustee for a sustainable development charity in Madagascar, which suffers enormously from climate injustice and enormous poverty. My activism is merely constrained by my time.

What must happen NOW to get people to change attitudes and behaviour and be more accountable? 

Perspective and understanding through education and experience, which require awareness, interest, openness and willingness to change. For many Millennials and younger, it’s already second nature, at times idealistic. My Generation X is the bridge from the Baby Boomers who will soon have all left workplace power. The attitude of pure profit pursuit is changing, but it takes time to work through ingrained culture, beliefs and habits.

We live in a highly inequitable world. We can help equalise through sustainability, but sustainability can also be the preserve of those fortunate to reach self-actualisation at the top of Maslow’s pyramid, as well as those just meeting their most basic of needs at the bottom.

Someone who’s achieved everything they want in life then turning on to sustainability and lecturing others can perhaps teach their peers, but may not go down well with those who spend their lives in survival mode. The bottom of the pyramid and indigenous peoples know more than most about sustainability, and the importance of communities, nature and the ecosystem, for survival.

It must be NOW that we drop the arrogance of much of the human race that sees itself as the most important species on a planet that belongs to us. It doesn’t and we are but one species of millions, all with an equal right to be here. We need to return to indigenous understanding of the equality and interconnectedness of everything, and realise how we behave results in what impacts us. With that awareness, perspective and understanding, we would all behave differently.

What would you say to those who do little to nothing for the good of communities and the environment?

I think the world is made up of 2 types of people: those who are self-, or other-, oriented. We have to learn to sell the benefits in the way it speaks to whoever our audience is: why it’s in their interests to do so, what’s in it for them. In time with subsequent engagement, they’ll start to think in different ways – beginning with experiencing those communities and environment.

How would you define climate-friendly travel? … does it mean low carbon (how low?) or Net Zero travel? 

At Earth Changers we support suppliers creating positive impacts in destinations including for the SDGs, and that includes decarbonisation for Climate Change SDG13. We don’t put a figure on the amount of carbon, because positive impacts can be relative to a destination, community size and local needs and opportunities. We don’t promote paid-offset programs, because they don’t actually lower carbon emissions, most have been shown to fail to achieve objectives, and are largely a band-aid enabling suppliers and consumers to avoid the real issue. We don’t have time to divert energy and resources into distractions which don’t work: that time and money needs to go into actual decarbonisation and research and development of alternatives where they are not yet viable, like aviation.

What is your personal favorite place to stay that’s trying hard to be accountable and transparent around sustainability with no greenwash allowed? (Please include website).

Any of the partners I work with on my site www.earth-changers.com, but it would be remiss of me to state a preference for anyone! They aren’t just trying hard, they are at the top of the game of sustainability, unique, incomparable and I love them all, that’s why I select them.

Is your company a Force for Good? What are the biggest risks you’ve taken … what are the pivotal moments?

Definitely. That’s the purpose of Earth Changers. It’s hopefully understood from the name!

The biggest risk has been in starting up. I have worked very, very hard for a long, long time without support, self-funding, against all seeming logic and feedback from the market, in the blind faith it would pay off eventually.

From day one, I have taken risks in following my heart and not what others think logical for me to do. I was told at university going to work a ski season and travel would ruin my career: I ended up with a career in tourism. When I was expected to stay in the Alps to move to a more senior managerial position, I moved back to London and started working in this new thing called the Internet that I was told would never succeed. When I had a redundancy, rather than stress about a job to pay my mortgage, I packed my bags to train as a ranger in Africa, again advised against because it didn’t suit someone else’s pigeon hole.

The decade before starting up, every job change was a risk: I earnt less and less as I switched more and more time to working for the necessary experience, not always valued, and most definitely disapproved of by some! I have sacrificed jobs, money, disposable income, nights, weekends, holidays, time, personal life… to pursue my aims.

Few people would have been prepared to do that, for no guarantees – but that’s what entrepreneurialism is, and the uphill reality of working in sustainability, especially in tourism, before it mainstreams. I’m tenacious for my purpose and passion simply because it’s the right thing to do.

I have never done things for money or an easy life, but for my vision of where I want to go. Even for my Master’s thesis, I went against advice on what would get a good mark, to write on a subject which I believed vital regardless of marks – greenwashing in volunteer tourism (now well known). It turned out to gain a distinction, but more importantly academically published & acclaimed, threatened with litigation for upsetting the applecart of irresponsible suppliers, and contributed to changing a sector and vitally potentially lives. I’m disruptive, as a force for good.

If you want to change things, you have to accept a level of risk and get comfortable with insecurity.

I’m brave enough to defy conventions or other people’s expectations as required. Of a man, it’s said ‘he knows what he wants’, ‘he’s a leader’ and given a promotion and pay rise; for the same behaviour a woman is called ‘difficult’ and treated with repression and control. That’s the reality of the average workplace, even now in Western society. I believe in meritocracy.

I keep going through great pivotal moments – like winning Best Responsible Travel & Tourism Website 2019, being asked to be a DeFRA Ambassador, being included as one of WISE100, the top 100 women in social enterprise in the UK, as well as top 100 female environmentalists.

But most pivotal moments are smaller and more personal wins: partner suppliers who want to work with you, media who want to interview you, customers who want to buy from you, being asked to present at leading conferences, being paid as an expert for speaking or consultancy… all these reaffirm you are doing the right thing.

What legacy would you like to leave behind from your leadership?

I want to change the world for the better through travel.

Who is your greatest influence?

Realistically, probably my parents! A fairly volatile, dysfunctional, then single parent, family, ultimately gave me the key for fierce independence of mind, body and financially, to adventure, to travel, to connect, to treat people equally and with integrity.

In terms of famous names, probably Mandela. I adore South Africa and everything about it, including its struggles, which make it what it is. Reading Long Road to Freedom while on a long backpack trip seeing many of the places mentioned was a profound, life-changing, experience for me. How he spent 27 years in captivity and came out with such wisdom and grace was extraordinary.

Best advice you have been given?

Trust your intuition.

Your best advice to the young generations concerned about their future?

Develop strong self-esteem; comparison and social media is the thief of self-worth. Eco-anxiety comes from inaction: Take action. Just start. Start at the bottom and work up. Don’t expect to know your purpose for a long time. Connect. Learn. Max your experiences. Don’t try to run before you can walk: Don’t expect overnight success, sustainability is a long-term strategy. Build strong foundations. Nothing worth doing is easy. When you care, you will do what is required. Creating change at times means upsetting people who don’t want to. Follow your heart, not what others think, learn to trust your own instinct.

Any regrets?

No.  You can only regret what you didn’t do. And what’s the point of that? It’s just a waste of time, thought and energy.  If you always follow your heart, do what you want to do, you won’t regret it.

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