Our Changemaker Chats interview series tells stories from the front line of impact entrepreneurship, as we get to know changemakers from the #EthicalHour community.
Changemakers come in many different forms, but ultimately are united by one thing – the desire to leave the world a better place than they found it, and the proactive attitude to make change happen.
In this series, we invite them to share their story openly and honestly, the highs and the lows, to give the world a better understanding of what it takes to make an income and an impact.
By bringing together thousands of changemakers and highlighting their journey, we want to collect and showcase the things they have in common and what sets them apart.
Through this series we hope to create a roadmap for the changemakers that come after us, so they can learn from our mistakes and take our successes further.
Today we talk to Vicky Smith, founder of Earth Changers, about her changemaker journey…
Vicky has worked in tourism for over 23 years, and sustainable tourism for over 13 years. She has headed up operations abroad and online for online travel agents and media, in mass market tourism, ski, tours, charity challenges, voluntourism and major tour operators such as Tui and Virgin Holidays. She’s a qualified ranger in Africa and a charity challenge leader. She’s an acclaimed academic for her published MSc Responsible Tourism Management thesis on the online marketing and greenwashing of volunteer tourism. She is a trustee for charity SEED Madagascar, and is on the development team for the Global and European Ecotourism Networks.
Vicky has now brought together her skills to launch sustainable tourism start-up Earth Changers.
What first inspired you to become a changemaker? Why did you choose the issue/cause/area you focus on?
It wasn’t an overnight decision, but a gradual evolution over 4 decades – all within travel! My first ambition, around age 4, was to travel; to go to every place in the world called Victoria. I don’t know why, perhaps it was simply a desire to be independent, which in turn made me more responsible.
Moving from north-west London where I was born to Yorkshire aged 9 also had a big impact towards my French language abilities and my love of outdoor pursuits – I suddenly had the opportunity to enjoy pursuits I would never have been able to try while in London, I got to go on school ski trips and loved the sense of freedom in the mountains.
I worked in a ski business in the French Alps, which was where I first dealt with the negative social impacts of tourism on destinations and witnessed environmental degradation of the mountains.
When I returned to the UK in the late 90s, I worked on innovative internet technology, initially conferences, then developing in-house web development, e-commerce and digital marketing in travel – jobs which were only available in the big companies. This, along with a personal trip to Kenya around 2002, exposed me to the mass package holiday market and the negative impact of tourism which was inconsiderate of local people and places.
I felt responsible, and decided I did not want to contribute to an industry working that way, so I starting transitioning my career towards sustainable tourism in 2005 and never looked back!
Which of the Sustainable Development Goals do you focus on? How do you create impact against them?
I focus on all of the SDGs and more! Earth Changers launched in 2017 which was great timing as it was coincidentally the official UN Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development – so I was delighted to become one of their launch partners.
As tourism represents roughly 10% of the world’s jobs and economies, and reaches into all corners of countries globally like no other industry, it has the scale and influence to create huge impacts. These impacts can be negative, as we too often see in the vast majority of travel, or they can be positive and in line with the SDGs, if proactively managed that way.
Tourism is mentioned directly in 3 SDGs – #8 Decent Work and Economic Growth; #12 Sustainable Consumption and Production; and #14 Life Below Water – but has the potential to contribute to all 17 Global Goals.
Tourism is especially important in the Least Developed Countries of the world, who often rely on tourists for around 40% of their economies – an absolute lifeline for their people, employment, infrastructure, industry, exports and earnings.
That’s why cutting aviation, due to the negative environmental impact of its global emissions (3%) will never be the answer, let alone impractical and unrealistic. Tourism is important globally for many reasons – we just have to make sure it’s net positive.
We work with destination-based tourism organisations whose operations contribute to SDGs. The more people that take those specific trips, the more local SDG impacts we support and create.
In my opinion, the two SDGs which stand out are #1 End Poverty and #13 Climate Change: the former underpins all others; the latter overarches all others. In reaching those two goals, we could reach most of the others.
The SDGs may appear over-simplified to some, but they’re a brilliant tool to help everybody structure and develop sustainably, from solopreneurs to government. I think the UN did a really smart job creating something seemingly simple in approach to work for complexity at all levels.
When you knew you wanted to be a changemaker, what was the first step you took?
The first step was to change jobs to work for an organisation that was involved in sustainable tourism. But I don’t want to give the impression being a changemaker is that easy, because that was in 2005, and from there it took years to get the experience and knowledge required.
In 2002, I knew I wanted to use the power of Internet technology to support communities and conservation worldwide via tourism. I spent the second half of 2006 in Africa, volunteering on conservation and community development and travelling through southern Africa – for me, travel is product knowledge. I gained a thorough understanding of the issues and where tourism could potentially help.
Returning to the UK, I worked at travel shows to meet companies working in sustainable tourism, and I was lucky to get a break with a company marketing and managing volunteer tourism and charity challenges.
However, with that company still new and a London mortgage to pay, I was lured back to the mass market. This didn’t last long and soon I went back to Africa to train as a ranger. I considered a permanent move, but life on a reserve is insular, and it wasn’t my ultimate goal.
Upon returning to the UK I worked full-time in online travel, while I studied an MSc in Responsible Tourism Management. I also voluntarily organised responsible tourism meet-ups and spent holidays volunteering for charity challenges for 3 years.
In 2016, a ski injury put paid to my travel and was the final push I needed to set up my own start-up – for a year, I literally had nothing to lose and everything to potentially gain. There has been so much back and forth, but I always had my vision, which I’m just starting to deliver. I’ve learned important lessons along the way; that being a changemaker means not fitting in others’ convenient boxes, making you unpopular at times because you’re different and challenging.
How did you get your first customer?
It was someone following my business on social media who liked Earth Changers’ values, who had a last minute opportunity to do something and was disillusioned with the mass travel market. She was interested in one destination, and I actually switch-sold her a cheaper option because I felt it was more what she was looking for.
How are you inspiring others to support your cause?
We’re marketing with a heavy focus on purpose in a way no other travel company does, probably because much so-called ‘sustainable’ tourism is greenwashing, whereas I have the proper product to back up my values. Most organisations market in a standard commercial way – I’m not overly commercial but try to strike a balance.
I’m also a brave person, willing to face and address tough challenges and find solutions. I’ve worked for commercial organisations who weren’t sustainable but all about the money, and for NGOs who weren’t commercial but all about the impact.
Hopefully I have enough experience of both their motivations and methods to find the mid-point- to be a great social enterprise, addressing grassroots issues, marketing commercially and delivering for impact.
People frequently tell us on social media we’re inspiring. I think it’s because our approach is balanced. We educate people on our purpose and the importance of tourism as a solution for sustainable development. That’s what we’re about – the intersection of Purpose, People and Places for positive impact, and enabling people to join that experience.
To be honest, I find it inspiring too, which is why I created Earth Changers – it’s all down our amazing destination partners who do the incredible grass roots work. They inspire me, and we’re here to shine a light on them and inspire the travel industry to change, as well as consumers.
As a result, we’ve received some praise and accolades: As I mentioned, we were a launch partner for #IY2017, the UN Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development; we were nominated for a UK Blog Award in 2018 for our work on tourism and the SDGs, were listed in the NatWest SE100 Awards 2019 for the UK’s top 100 social enterprises for storytelling, we were finalists in the 2019 Be The Change Awards and I was invited by Defra, the UK Government’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, to be an Ambassador for their #YearOfGreenAction in 2019.
What’s the biggest obstacle you’ve overcome in your journey so far? How did you overcome it?
Life is a rollercoaster! It was tough to be physically incapacitated for a year and set up a business at the same time, but it was also serendipitously what I needed. Personally I’ve had more than my fair share of adversity and traumas, and it’s made me the strong person I am, which is required for changing the world! The most important thing is to find the positives in any situation.
As one person with a boot-strapped start-up undertaking the mammoth task of changing the travel industry, one of the biggest obstacle in sustainable tourism is consumer demand. To sell travel one must sell a dream, and we hope to make that one of positive impact. There’s a huge gap between what consumers say they would like to do and what they actually do, so Earth Changers aims to support people to take an ethical direction.
Consumers like the thought of sustainable tourism, but want and expect to pay mass-market, loss-leading prices – this is the travel equivalent of fast fashion. As such, our sector is vulnerable to greenwashing. This is obviously very frustrating, and something I try and address with Earth Changers by transparently explaining how my destination partners work with integrity.
What’s the best decision you’ve made that’s had the biggest impact for your business so far?
There’s been many! It’s been a true journey. If I could summarise, it’s to be brave and follow my heart and own instincts. I had to remember this in my studies, travel, job opportunities, innovations, working freelance, training as a ranger AND starting my business, none of which would have happened without following my instincts.
What’s the best piece of advice you ever received?
My favourites include:
Trust your instincts.
Know your values.
Focus on your vision.
You’re only as good as the people you surround yourself with.
Remember you’re standing on the shoulders of giants.
My personal mantra is “Life’s too short”: Go out, adventure, explore, gain perspective, develop.
Where do you see yourself and the world around you in 10 years? What’s your vision for a more ethical and sustainable future?
I’d like to see Earth Changers become a thriving business, helping create serious positive impacts in destinations and supporting amazing people and initiatives in places all around the world.
I hope by then we have aviation running on alternative energy/fuels, as forecast.
I’d like all other transportation and accommodation to be carbon-neutral too.
I’d like to see consumers understand negatively impacting tourism in the way they are starting to with plastics and fast fashion.
I’d like to see sustainable tourism demanded as the default in the industry, and for Earth Changers to have had an influence on that.
Finally, what advice would you give to aspiring changemakers?
Only you know what you really want to do. The key is to tap into that intuition and vision and commit to it, consistently, determinedly and doggedly.
Keep going. You’ll be sorely tested but when it’s your passion and vocation you’ll do whatever it takes to make it work. Challenge and sacrifice is a required part of the journey. Invest in yourself and in the future, not stuff. Give to receive.
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