"A stable climate is a very fundamental human right."

Self confessed "professional tree hugger" Nicole Rycroft has saved 60 million acres of ancient forest since she started Canopy in 1999. Pioneers Post went to find out what makes her tick.

The old adage of never judging a book by its cover is never truer than in the case of Nicole Rycroft. Radiating calm and speaking softly in a considered, adagio tempo, she is seemingly unfazed by the invited audience around a table intently listening to her story at Ashoka's London headquarters. Don’t be fooled reader – steel lies underneath. Since 1999, Rycroft and her team at Canopy have convinced 700 companies to ensure their supply chains are sustainable so that ancient forests are protected. 60 million acres of forest in Canada and North America have been saved as a result.

A veteran of blockades, she came to realise that protest was only delaying the inevitable and sought a more impactful solution. Starting with “$1,800 as a band of one” she first went to the paper producers. On being told there was no market for sustainably sourced paper, she went to some of their customers. When a book publisher underwrote the cost of two truckloads of forest friendly paper, she’d proved there was a market. The team at Canopy still operate the same way, phoning up companies and encouraging them to change their sourcing.

We don’t shame and blame.

How did she get to the people that make those decisions? “Tenacity, shamelessness. I will call and talk to anybody and so will anyone on my team. It seems comical to call and ask to speak to the CEO but I did – generally director level people.” She tells me there weren’t many sustainability directors around at the turn of the decade.

Canopy’s hit rate is around 80-90% these days and she puts their success down to not being a stick company, by which she means not beating an organisations with a stick when Canopy is trying to convince them to change their ways. “We don’t shame and blame. No one wants to join the army of the glum; our work is really based on deep relationships and corporate executives stepping forward as champions of environmental change.” Canopy seeks to educate the people making purchasing decisions by encouraging them to “contribute to global legacies of conservation on the ground.” 

The fashion industry has been Canopy’s focus in recent years, since it was discovered that trees can be pulped to be turned into materials like rayon. As well as the trees, it’s often the wildlife that suffers – everything from caribou to orang-utans. The organisation's highlighting of this issue has been effective in getting big hitters like Marks & Spencers and Inditex (which owns brands like Zara and Massimo Dutti) to exclude these kinds of materials from their supply chain.

Prior to becoming a professional tree hugger (her words, not mine), Rycroft was formerly a rower and physiotherapist. What sent her down the road of environmental sustainability? Rycroft credits her family first for this, telling me that her grandmother had an infectious love of wild places. But it’s also down to Australia, the country she grew up in. “As a kid I ran around in the bush and you can smell the eucalyptus oil, there’s a cacophony of sounds with cockatoos and cicadas. Sometimes it’s very deafening and it’s hot, almost like a sensory overload and it kind of got woven into my fabric at a very early age.”

“A stable climate is a very fundamental human right; it’s an underpinning of life on earth in all its forms, for humanity as well as the species that we share this planet with who don’t have an ability to advocate for their own interest. That’s what drew me to it.”

At the end of the interview, we do a few ‘either or’ questions and one of them provokes a story that further proves existence of the steel described at the beginning of article. When I ask her to choose between direct action or diplomacy, she tells me about being detained for protesting at Chinese influence in Tibet during the Olympics held there in 2008. She was asked to sign statements in Mandarin but refused and was eventually put on an aeroplane 15 hours later. 

It is when I ask her if she was scared that both her composure and fortitude is revealed. “You undertake that kind of an action with a lot of contemplation. I have travelled in Tibet and born witness to the impact of Chinese rule and occupation of Tibet. I felt it was my responsibility and also – I was an athlete. The idea of the Chinese being granted the Olympic games was anathema to me so I went into the situation knowing I would be arrested, knowing I would be detained, expecting that I would be detained for the length of the Olympics. I left a four month plan in place with the chair of my board.” With that kind of determination on show, it is little wonder that Canopy has an impressive record of changing hearts and minds.