BY KATIE - MYGREENPOD, 31 May '19

The partnership that’s promoting equality,
sustainable development and diversity in the workplace

This article first appeared in our spring ’19 issue of MyGreenPod Magazine, The Organic Revolution, distributed with the Guardian on 31 May 2019. Click here to subscribe to our digital edition and get each issue delivered straight to your inbox

The core mission at Octopus Energy is to make renewable energy standard – an expectation in every UK home – but this green energy supplier is also innovating with renewables to solve problems in fuel-poor communities around the world.

Octopus customers can pay a little extra and go Super Green, offsetting the carbon emissions of any gas used in their homes. To do this, Octopus is funding solar energy microgrids in areas with limited access to electricity, or where there’s heavy reliance on dangerous and polluting fuels, such as kerosene, for power.

When the team at Octopus Energy heard from Renewable World, a small, Brighton-based charity that works with local renewable projects in communities in countries including Kenya and Nepal, it was all ears.

A LIFE-CHANGING EMAIL

In the energy supplier’s welcome email, its CEO Greg Jackson thanks new customers for choosing Octopus Energy, and provides his email address in case anyone wants to get in touch to provide feedback.

When Helen Russell, grants manager at Renewable World, did just that, Greg replied to say, ‘Great; come up and see us’.

Helen and Marie Hounslow (main image), head of fundraising at Renewable World, left their Brighton office to meet Greg in Soho, London more than two years ago. Since then, Renewable World has become Octopus Energy’s official carbon offsetting partner, meaning that for customers who choose its Super Green tariff, the carbon produced by their home is offset by Renewable World projects.

‘We were struck by how passionate Greg and the entire Octopus team were with regards to renewable forms of energy, sustainability and diversity’, says Marie. ‘It really chimed with our beliefs and mission, and very soon we were in discussions with Octopus Energy about how we might fulfil its pledge to carbon offset by supporting renewable schemes in the developing world.’

‘We’re very proud that Octopus Energy has chosen Renewable World as its carbon-offsetting partner’, Marie continues. ‘It means that the projects chosen meet a rigorous, internationally recognised Gold Standard. Octopus has been fantastic for us; the team believed in us from the word go, so we are enormously grateful.’

Taking on challenges

Marie has been working in the charity sector for around 30 years, and her career has largely specialised in fundraising. She worked at WWF for years, and her swansong was coordinating the charity’s 50th anniversary. ‘It was an enormous challenge’, Marie remembers, ‘but after doing it I felt I wanted new challenges; I went back to my first love, fundraising, on a freelance basis.’

Challenges are something that Marie takes in her stride. She and husband Kial have four daughters, one aged 17, and 15-year-old triplets – one of whom is on the autism spectrum – yet Marie laughs off any suggestion that she is a role model. ‘It’s just life, isn’t it?’, she says. ‘I think any mum is a role model. Genevieve is slightly different but all kids are challenging in their own way.’

Marie does accept that having four daughters has honed her feminist instincts. ‘I want my girls to be happy, to make their own decisions and live their lives on their own terms, not some perceived system of patriarchy or whatever’, she says.

Empowering women

It is this vision that informs Marie’s work with Renewable World, which to her is all about tackling poverty and empowering women.

‘We’re active in the developing world, primarily in Nepal where we install solar-powered water pumps and also in Kenya, where we have a project building solar microgrids on the shores of Lake Victoria’, Marie says.

Why is that a feminist issue? ‘It’s simple’, Marie explains. ‘These are communities where the work of building a life and bringing up children falls disproportionately upon the women. Women walk miles to collect water and carry it back; they are the ones who manage what money they get and are the backbone of their societies.’

In Nepal, for instance, there are entire villages populated mainly by women, children and the elderly. ‘The men go overseas and the conditions can be appalling, with little pay, but they do it in order to send money back home’, Marie tells us. ‘So it is the women who ultimately pay the price with hard work and little resources. If we can support them in terms of energy and water, we are helping to make their communities viable so the men won’t need to leave – they can stay and work.’

Many communities wouldn’t usually be able to farm outside of the rainy season, but Renewable World is creating an opportunity for farming to become a business and provide an income. ‘This allows everyone to stay in the communities that amazing women are rebuilding’, Marie explains. ‘So yes, it is a feminist issue – as poverty so often is.’

Click here to find out why the Octopus Energy Super Green tariff is a My Green Pod Hero

Rebecca Dibb-Simkin
Rebecca Dibb-Simkin planting trees, as part of an Octopus Energy initiative, at her son’s school in Rugby

A liberating way to operate

Marie lives in Godalming, Surrey and commutes to Brighton three days a week, working from home one day a week.
‘When the opportunity at Renewable World came up, it ticked all the boxes for me’, she says. ‘The values, the mission, the flexibility that allows me to combine a demanding home life with an important role. The approach to flexibility means that I can work from home or the office, and means I am happy and fulfilled.’

This notion of empowerment and diversity is something that sits very comfortably with Octopus Energy, where women represent 88.8% of the management team.

‘I think we are unusual in that we treat people like adults’, says Rebecca Dibb-Simkin, product and marketing director at Octopus Energy. ‘Consequently, we get great work from people; they value the trust we place in them and go the extra mile for the company.’ Octopus Energy has no human resources and doesn’t clock-watch. ‘People know how much holiday they can have and we trust them to know how to combine it with the needs of their work role’, Rebecca tells us.

Another point of difference is in Octopus Energy’s bespoke platform, Kraken, which allows its advisers to be a single point of contact for customers. ‘Whether it is a billing issue or a meter reading, the same person will handle the issue, whatever it is’, Rebecca explains. ‘You won’t be put on hold or transferred to accounts or credit control or anything.’

Tech for social change

Octopus Energy has also championed a new department that it calls DigiOps. ‘Our technology enables remote working, which means our DigiOps team is mainly made up of incredibly brilliant women, often returning to work after having children and looking for opportunities to build a career and balance family life’, Rebecca tells us.

Octopus Energy recently appointed its first male DigiOps adviser – ‘a guy who is perfectly open about mental health issues and anxiety’, Rebecca reveals. ‘He is somewhat nocturnal so chooses to work through the night.’

A DREAM COME TRUE

Marie’s messages about the transformative nature of work and its ability to bring about social change really chimed with Octopus Energy; ‘We see ourselves primarily as a tech company that is using tech to bring social change in terms of renewable energy for our customers’, Rebecca tells us. ‘But we’re also using tech to liberate our staff to see work as more collaborative and fulfilling than a clock-watching time-sheet kind of place that it sadly is for all too many people.’

Effecting social change is precisely why Marie, too, gets excited about her projects. ‘If we can ensure that communities become viable once again – and, in so doing, reduce the oppressive burden that has always fallen upon women the most – we are ticking all of my personal boxes’, she explains. ‘To partner with, and be championed by, such a wonderful organisation as Octopus Energy really was beyond our wildest expectations. To say it is a dream come true doesn’t begin to cover it.’

And to think it all started with a casual email to Greg just shows the great way in which Octopus Energy chooses to operate. ‘I cannot thank them enough’, Marie says.