How we can all take steps to combat climate change – an interview with Lily Dempster Founder of One Small Step
A Verve mini series to celebrate and acknowledge International Women’s Day and Women’s History Month with a bunch of formidable women connected to the Verve community that you need to know about. This article features Lily Dempster, Founder and CEO of One Small Step.
Be it the women’s movement or the fight to combat climate change, we know that small steps, taken one after the other, can make a huge impact. While change might not happen as quickly as we would like, each of us has agency and power to effect some change and help turn the tide.
This Women’s History Month (March 2021) we celebrate women’s contributions to history, culture, and society, however, we must also take this opportunity to identify the many ways in which we still have a long way to go in fighting for gender equity and justice. It’s time to step into our personal power as we speak to environmental activist and Founder of the One Small Step App, Lily Dempster.
Hi Lily, thanks for chatting with us! Can you tell us a little about yourself and the work you do in the world?
Lily: My name is Lily Dempster and I live and work on Ngunnawal (Canberra) country, but today I’m speaking to you on Wurundjeri land in Naarm/Melbourne. I am the CEO and Founder of One Small Step, which is basically a sustainability coach that fits in your pocket. It’s a free mobile app designed to help you reduce your environmental footprint through a range of different programs that make it really easy and rewarding for you to adopt a greener lifestyle.
My background is in environmental advocacy, I worked in government and public policy, as well as at GetUp! on renewable energy and consumer campaigns switching tens of thousands of people to zero carbon products and green power. I studied law & political science before starting a Masters that covered renewable energy tech engineering, sustainability, and a bit of economics.
Basically, since I was about 21, I’ve been obsessed with climate change – it is ‘the’ problem that I want to spend my life working on because I believe it to be the biggest social justice issue of our generation.
Well, that is quite an impressive resume! How did you come to be connected to Verve?
I met Verve’s CEO, Christina, at the female-focused co-working space One Roof. We’d never met before but we both lived in Canberra at the time and knew a lot of the same people. I remember meeting her and thinking ‘what an amazingly smart and cool person!’. Plus, I think what Verve is doing is great.
We also have to shout out One Roof for being such a great meeting place of heart-aligned women! So, what made you take all of that experience and use it to effectively start your own tech company?
I started One Small Step because, in my campaigning roles, I realised that we can have a really rapid and tangible impact (on reducing our carbon footprint) simply by changing our behaviour.
I also think there is a false binary between individual and collective action and ‘bottom up’ versus ‘top down’ reform. I think it is a mistake to say that we need one and shouldn’t focus on the other because we can do both at the same time and both are important.
In Australia, we actually have really high personal footprints, country-wide, and I think that we need to start by changing our behaviour. Let me put it this way: if you have an 18 tonne per year footprint as an individual, you can make a difference by reducing it. And if 100,000 other people do it, too, that can very quickly have a large impact.
It seems like this is an important gap in the ‘market’, so to speak?
Exactly! A few years ago, I had recognised that there was this gap in the environmental movement and that we could use all of this amazing research on how to support people to adopt pro-environmental behaviours. Essentially, we can apply what has been scientifically validated to be effective in terms of behavioural change and put it in front of people, and make it easier for them to take action and build a skill set around sustainability. And that’s what One Small Step does.
Shifting the power dynamics
We’d love to hear what International Women’s Day means to you, and Women’s History Month more broadly?
I think it is great that International Women’s Day exists because if we look at history, there are so many really amazing women’s stories that we don’t hear as much about because of how society has been structured in terms of its power dynamics.
We also live in a patriarchal society where gender roles are still very prescribed, yet women doing roles seen as ‘traditional’ are often overlooked.
Gender inequality is still a huge problem. As an event that’s global, IWD helps us shine a spotlight on gender equality issues. For example, there is still a massive wage gap, women still face a wage penalty when they have kids, domestic violence is an epidemic, and there are still huge women’s health issues, like misdiagnoses of endometriosis that are only just starting to get the attention and research funding they deserve.
Could you help us to draw the line between your relationship to feminism right now and the work that you do in the world?
I guess I think about feminism and gender equality as having equal opportunity, irrespective of gender, and not facing social or economic harm for operating within or outside of prescribed gender roles. And that goes for women, men and non-binary people.
For me, I’m running a software business as a relatively young woman, and it’s been really amazing the autonomy that comes with that. That said, I have faced some unconscious sexism in setting up One Small Step. But, you know, I’ve got a good education and I’m a white lady, so I’m very privileged, and while I do occasionally experience some unpleasant gender bias, that’s about the extent of it these days. I’m aware that I’m actually a powerful person because of the education that I have and my capacity to run this business, and so I mostly just feel grateful and want to focus on contributing meaningfully to society. The area where I put my focus is climate change because I see it as a huge social justice issue. Because the poorest people in our communities, with the least responsibility for creating this problem, are the worst affected by its impacts. There are huge racial and gender disparities in the impacts of climate change, and it’s a threat multiplier. So, all of the things that we don’t want to have happen, like more natural disasters and disease, habitat loss, and rising sea levels, are impacting people in some of the most vulnerable populations.
The personal is political
The fact that climate change affects people who are already marginalised disproportionately means that climate justice becomes a critical part of the picture. However, what do you think is the role of personal agency?
One thing that I’ve come to think about as part of my personal value system is trying to be clear about what’s my personal agency in addressing this issue and being honest with myself about that. I’m really interested in consumer power as a form of collectivist power
I think that because of the digital age and our capacity to act in tandem with one another we actually have this untapped power as a community to influence corporate behaviour.
Old school models of campaigning have used things like boycotts in the past to influence corporate behaviour, and I think that because of the digital age and our capacity to act in tandem with one another we actually have this untapped power as a community.
If we are thinking ‘I can change my own behaviour and I can give my custom to businesses that I want to support and who are doing things that I think are amazing’, that will have an impact. If we are acting not just as individuals, but we recognise that we are part of a larger cohort making those choices then that’s a really significant lever in the fight against the climate crisis.
The other important thing is that we are inviting people in rather than calling them out. It is positive and uplifting and it doesn’t have to be about the politics of outrage, which I think has a limited utility particularly for people who aren’t already on board with this issue. You don’t want to be engaging with an issue like climate change and be immediately shamed or feel guilty or experience a huge amount of negativity, so I also try to focus on what’s possible and the power of collective action through using your personal agency. Let me be clear that I’m not saying it is the thing to do, obviously, we need action like comprehensive policy reform, but it is one aspect of the fight that I feel has been a bit untapped and under-utilised. Wide-scale behaviour change is its own mass movement.
Flicking the switch
Can you speak briefly to the link between superannuation and environmental degradation?
It’s amazing really when you think about the billions of dollars in the superannuation industry in Australia and the number of assets in fossil fuel generation. I could talk forever about fiduciary duties to members and non-disclosure of carbon risks, but suffice to say that divesting is not just the right thing to do from an environmental standpoint, it’s also the right thing to do from a risk mitigation and financial management standpoint.
Our green finance program on One Small Step is really popular because we’ve broken down who are the good superfunds (of course, Verve makes the cut!), who are the good banks from an environmental standpoint, then we’ve also outlined the steps you can take. It’s not just that you research the banks, it’s that you first need to set up a new bank account, and then you need to transfer your money over, then you need to notify your employer – and so we have all of these steps built in to make it easier for people to actually do them.
What are some of the common barriers you find to people taking action on climate change?
We’ve done a lot of prototyping and user research before we built the app and we found that for people that are concerned about climate change and sustainability there is this strong feeling that when you go online, and you are trying to search for information, that there are lots and lots of different sources and tips, like tonnes, and to achieve some of them you have to do a lot of work. It’s a really big cognitive load to figure out whether something might be applicable to you as a renter, or as a mother, or as someone who lives rurally. There are some barriers to taking action because it’s not actually clear what’s going to be most impactful.
We make suggestions for your specific circumstances and that personalisation is really important to actually break down barriers to behaviour change. We also know that, from a behavioural standpoint, information alone is not sufficient to achieve lifestyle change. You have to start to build cues into your environment to start making daily decisions differently and make it easier for yourself.
It’s not just about telling people what to do and giving them information. It is about trying to build systems around them and empower them to make change and build a sense of self-efficacy. Self efficacy means at a base level that you believe you can do the thing you’re setting out to do, so it is another goal of ours to show people that making these changes is achievable.
The power is in your hands
What would you say to members of the Verve community wanting to take one small step to reduce their environmental impact?
Verve community – you already know that you have some power around who to choose to buy from, which is part of why you are members of Verve, right?! For many of you, it is just really about consolidating that, identifying the gaps in what you’re not already doing from an environmental standpoint, and continuing to make changes to lower your footprint, while recognising that it is an amazing thing you’re all doing. Good on you for being Verve members because you are already living your values and enjoying a sense of community that Verve is offering. Similar to One Small Step, it’s helpful to recognise that it’s not just you, there is a whole movement of women taking action on this, and that is really positive.
If 50,000 of us reduced our personal carbon footprints by a quarter over the next year, we’d save 250,000 tonnes of carbon; the same as taking 54,000 cars off the roads or planting four million tree seedlings.
Now that doesn’t mean that we have to take on responsibility for the whole world, but we can, in addition to the movement-building and campaigning that is happening, take what we do have control over (our own emissions) and do our best. If each of us does that, it will have a really significant impact.
But, lastly, if you haven’t already, please download the app! t’s free, we’ll give you a tailored set of programs based on what’s going to work for you to help you get down to 2 tonnes of carbon.
A big thank you, Lily, for taking the time to share your work with the Verve community and for everything you do to fight back against climate change. You can find out more about One Small Step, or download their very cool app from the App Store or Google Play.
More about Lily
Lily Dempster is an environmental advocate and the CEO and Founder of One Small Step, a mobile app with tailored programs to help you cut your carbon footprint. In a former life she was GetUp’s Market Impact Director, where she ran consumer campaigns, helping thousands of people switch to zero carbon products online. With a background in law, social science, public policy, and renewable energy technology, Lily is passionate about taking the lessons from behavioural economics and cognitive science and using them to try and achieve environmental behaviour change at scale.