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A Year in the Greenhouse

Reality Check

Julia Hailes

If I had to pick just one thing I was proudest of in my working life, it would be co-founding SustainAbility. When I recall it pretty much started in our kitchen and a couple of back bedrooms, it's really quite extraordinary to see what the organisation has become. We are now expanding, both in numbers and in the number of offices, but for more than a decade we struggled continuously to keep our size down. We expressed it - in words coined by my co-Director Geoff Lye - by saying we wanted to grow our influence, not our numbers.

A key reason was that we wanted to retain our independence and our strong links with NGOs, which we felt might be compromised if we grew our overheads too fast and were forced to take whatever work came along. We saw a fair few competitors go down this track and implode. In the event, our strategy has worked pretty well, even though some of the ethical dilemmas we have had to tackle have been very challenging.

To help us in the process, we have been extremely lucky to be able to recruit a world-class Council and Faculty. In various ways they - and our Board, with Tom Delfgaauw as our first Non-Executive Director - have helped us tackle such dilemmas - and navigate our way through the complexities of life at the interface between markets and ethics.

A corporate hybrid
When founded in 1987, SustainAbility was the world's first consultancy operating at the business end of sustainable development. When registered, its founder-directors were Julia Hailes and myself, though Tom Burke had given important early help.

Throughout, SustainAbility has been a hybrid, combining elements of a consultancy, a think-tank and a campaigning group. Its evolution is sketched under Timelines.

In November 2005, I took a new role and title: 'Founder and Chief Entrepreneur', having previously been Chairman/Chair from 1995.  Simultaneously, Sophia Tickell took over as Chair and Mark Lee as our first CEO.  Some thoughts on my new role can be found at

By early 2003, SustainAbility had offices in London and New York (subsequently moved to Washington, DC), with a core team of 22 people, of 10 nationalities, and a Council and Faculty of more than 50 experts worldwide. A Zurich office opened in the autumn of 2003.

Reality Check
The company's 15-year progress report, Reality Check, can be downloaded as a pdf file from SustainAbility. A sense of what life at SustainAbility was like in the early years can be had from my published diary of 1989, A Year in the Greenhouse (1990).

Almost all of the reports I have worked on since 1987 have been produced - and most published - by SustainAbility.