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BioRegional: An Inventive Model of Sustainability
by Elisa Birnbaum
on June 07, 2011

Sue RiddlestoneDedicated to creating sustainable communities and production systems, UK-based BioRegional Development Group was co-founded in 1994 by Sue Riddlestone and Pooran Desai to stem what they viewed to be the primary cause of the world’s environmental issues: over-consumption.


Their multi-faceted response first took the form of various innovative enterprises, such as The Laundry, London’s first curbside recycling company. With no minimum collection amount needed, and with a fixed fee per bag, even small companies can use their service (it has since been sold). There’s also MiniMills, developing new small-scale technology to produce paper pulp, and the BioRegional Charcoal Company, supplying locally produced charcoal to national retailers. It's estimated the innovation resulted in an 85% reduction in carbon dioxide emissions generated from the transport of charcoal from producer to store.


BedZed eco-village

BedZed eco-village


Through consultancy, education and informing policy, BioRegional is committed to demonstrating that environmentally sustainable living is a feasible option for everyone. They’ve developed One Planet Living, an approach that, with its accompanying 10 principles, envisions a world in which, "people live happy, healthy lives within the natural limits of the planet.” And they started the One Planet Communities programme, whereby BioRegional helps develop (by way of advisor or coach) a network of the earth’s greenest neighbourhoods.


But BioRegional is probably best known for the Beddington Zero Energy Development. The UK’s largest mixed-use sustainable community, BedZED is an award-winning eco-village situated outside London made up of like-minded folks looking for a sustainable and high quality of life. Riddelstone and Desai live and work out of BedZed, voted fourth most influential green building last year by US Architect magazine (for curious folks, daily tours show you how it’s done).


SEE Change recently sat down with 2009 Skoll Award winner, Riddlestone who shared her thoughts on running the revolutionary social enterprise and her long-standing passion for sustainable communities.


You were an environmental activist well before it was “trendy”; where did these sensibilities originate?


We started developing our idea in 1992 (we became a charity in 1994). Yes, it wasn’t yet mainstream but there was a big enough community thinking this way so we didn’t feel like a total loser. I do remember things like having a little seat at the back for my daughter when we cycled to her school and everyone used to look. Nowadays, a lot of people have that but sometimes I still do feel a bit "out there."


What inspired me to do what I’m doing is the beauty of the world and my feeling that it has an intrinsic right to be left in peace; to leave space for wildlife and wilderness. I remember back in the late 80s, early 90s, issues like Vancouver Island being clear-cut for paper-making. That was one of the things that inspired me to think: how can we make paper more sustainable? And, I suppose as a child I was always very aware. There’s something about appreciating nature at a very young age and appreciating the fellow creatures on the planet. And just feeling it was my responsibility to do what I can because how can a tree or orangutan or a killer whale take responsibility? What can they do?


For me it was about, how can we produce the things that we need in such a way to reduce our impact on wildlife and wilderness. Thinking more locally is a part of that. And that’s why we called ourselves BioRegional, from the idea of local production for local needs. So if we need to make some paper, we’re not going to get it from Vancouver Island. How can we do it more locally? We look to our regional resources to answer that. That led to one stream where we focused on paper production, including the MiniMill technology and small-scale pulp mill.


Tell me about the One Planet Living philosophy.


We’re trying to show that we can have the paper, we can have the charcoal, we can have a nice house, we can have everything, we just have to be more resource-efficient and smart. And then it’s not scary, is it? There’s something about presenting the facts and showing there are ways to do it. We try to dissolve people’s perceptions and barriers and the fact that they think it won’t be nice. We make it more aspirational and attractive.


solar panels

Solar array at the Sonoma Mountain Village One Planet Community from Codding Enterprises


How did those ideas evolve into BedZed?


We needed a new office and we looked around and decided if we did an eco-village we could live there as well. We approached a green architect to come up with some designs and we tried to sell it to people. It was a £15 million project. When I look back now I think, “What on earth were we thinking?” But what I always found is, even if things seem really audacious, if you can see something worth doing, you just have a do it and people take you seriously. But I do think you have to be professional and business-like in the way you go about it.


There are 100 homes and workspaces, so there’s about 250 people living there plus about 100 coming in every day to work. And then there’s a college for people with learning disabilities. The idea is for people to be sustainable, making it easy to do the right thing and difficult to do the wrong thing. We weren’t architects or planners but we were thinking about it as people who wanted to be sustainable and were going to live there. A low energy building is not just about the building but how you live in it.


We had a green transport plan and we thought, how do we make it easy to live without a car? Luckily, the site is close to public transport and we made a space in the hallway to put bikes and we charged people for parking spaces. And we have London’s first car club. Now they’re all over London. That’s one of the key takeaways when they come to visit us. They say, “Oh yeah, we can do that.” We definitely reduced car use by 50-60%. Obviously, they're partly self-selected, but 50% are renting or workers who don’t have much of a choice but to also join in.


What are some of the other innovations introduced?


It’s a regular mainstream development, that was another innovation. Everything we did we wanted to do mainstream, something that could just work in the market because otherwise how could sustainability ever happen? We’re also really energy efficient. We don’t need central heating; we’re outfitted with energy-saving appliances and supply the remaining with renewable energy. We’ve reduced energy demand and set it up to make it easy to recycle.


Behaviour change is big too. We have metres so when you use a lot of electricity or hot water, it shows on the metre. We had a 45% reduction in energy consumption and we think 20% of that is from human behaviour change. We set up local and sustainable food growing materials. We’ve shown how much human behaviour really makes a difference. And we’ve seen that even though our residents cut impact, they’re happier. On average, people at BedZed know about 20 of their neighbours, whereas the average number is about eight.


We have training, education and consulting to help others do the same. We set up a for-profit property development company. We just finished one project in Brighton with 172 apartments and we’re working around the world. It’s an innovative way for us to grow, setting up in other parts of the world; it's a nice way to grow. We’re trying to show that all around the world you can live sustainable lifestyles. We developed 10 principles as a framework that anyone can use.


People come from all over to check out BedZed; what do you think accounts for its success?


They come from China, Australia, Korea, from everywhere. I meet people all the time who’ve been there. I think part of the reason it’s been so influential is we didn’t just build it and go away. It’s in our community. Although we’re an international NGO and we do all these different things, we’re still very rooted in our community and try to make our own local area sustainable. Part of it is being there, monitoring our residents, writing reports and having a visitor centre. If we didn’t have one, it just wouldn’t be as real.


We didn’t think we’d still be open eight years later. We didn’t think there would still be tour groups. We didn't realize how influential the project would be; we just tried to do a really good job and we didn’t know it would have that impact.


How does the Skoll award impact you?


I think it makes a difference on several levels. It’s nice to have validation of what you’re doing. When someone says, “this is really good,” it means people take you more seriously and it’s validation to other people too. All of them [Skoll winners] are so brilliant, it's quite humbling to be part of the gang. It’s a nice feeling, like a family. The longer you’re in the network, the more you start to link up. Obviously, the Skoll award itself helps in that they give you some coaching on how to replicate for scale and the grant money itself is helpful for that.


What are some key lessons learned?


Be business-like, professional, and do your homework. It’s about sustainability, going back to basics, thinking from scratch because that’s where you can see these genuine opportunities. Look for partners to do projects with you and think, “What’s in it for them?” because there has to be something. From my point of view, we always try really hard to do a good job with pure intentions and that always seems to help.


It’s been an interesting journey. Every day is interesting, intellectually challenging, exciting, worthwhile. I just cannot imagine why anyone would want to do anything except things that inspire them. That’s a message I always say to people: Do what inspires you, what makes your eyes light up. Do it.



While in London, Elisa stayed at the Lancaster London, recognized for its strong commitment to the environment. Over the years the hotel introduced a variety of environmental initiatives including an Environmental Task Force, an Environmental Policy and an annual internal "Green Awareness Day". What's more, it became the first hotel in London to install beehives on its roof to curb the depleting bee population and reduce the food miles on hotel honey. Thanks to its ongoing efforts in sustainability, the Lancaster London was awarded a number of prestigious honours.


Elisa Birnbaum

Elisa Birnbaum is the co-founder of SEE Change Magazine, and works as a freelance journalist, producer and communications consultant. She is also the president of Elle Communications.


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