Starting small to build trust and to inspire big change

Meet Andrea van der Graaf, managing director of renewable energy company Tegenstroom and of sustainable investment fund Meermaker. Andrea and I used to work together at Greenpeace in the late ‘90’s. After a recent event about climate change, which we co-hosted at Nyenrode Business University, it was high time for an interview with her. Here’s what she has to say about letting go, building trust and starting small.


Kicking the fossil fuel addiction

“The world which I dream about and work towards is one which no longer relies on fossil fuels. Only then can we keep our planet livable. Our entire economic system is addicted to fossil fuels, so this is easier said than done. We need to let go of the idea of unlimited growth and placing profit maximization above all else. And we need to take better care of each other. Only if we take care of all people, can we jointly take care of the planet.


With help from governments and companies

Companies have a role to play in transforming our world to this better place, but for most of them, especially small and medium-sized companies, the focus is on their own financial sustainability. Most of the companies will not change voluntarily and risk impacting their own future. They will wait for legislation to create a new level playing field.


The market simply cannot take care of change at this scale; government intervention is really needed. And there are great examples of where such intervention has worked, like the Dutch waste management industry. Supposedly it’s one of the best in the world, but it would not be where it is today if it had not been for legislation. There are so many other policies the government can put in place to push us in the right direction. Examples include a carbon tax, increasing taxes on materials while decreasing taxes on labor, as well as taxing the distance traveled in a car and not car ownership.


But most importantly: through people and trust

But it’s not just up to governments and companies. In the end, it’s up to all of us as people. We need a paradigm shift in our collective minds that we need to kick our fossil fuel habit. We need new social norms and peer pressure to achieve this. Rather than wanting to keep up with the neighbors when they buy a new car or install a new kitchen, we should copy their behavior when they install solar panels. But in a world where many people no longer know their neighbors, this won’t happen instantly.


Trust is an important factor to make social change happen. My way to build trust is to start small and to focus on what is already possible today. That’s why I enjoy showing our neighbors and other people around our completely climate-neutral houseboat. My role is to inspire and connect. In that, communication is key to help spread the word and get more people engaged. To engage people, you have to communicate in a way that is relevant to them. You can’t sell solar panels to social housing projects in a suit and an expensive car. Wherever I go, I adjust my story and the way I explain our proposition. Through storytelling, I like to shake things up and inspire action. To get people from all walks of life to get off their couch to do something good. Although to sign up for renewable energy from Tegenstroom, people don’t even have to get up from their couch!


Contributing to positive change

There is a growing number of people eager to contribute to change. Citizens, people in companies and brave politicians. I am inspired to keep going by watching people like Paul Polman (Unilever) and Marjan Minnesma (Urgenda). But also by Ed and Lily Nieuwenhuizen who are doing an incredible job making their town of Lisserbroek (3600 residents) climate neutral and more sustainable. And at the same time, I am worried about the (still larger) group of people who think that change is not necessary, or that their efforts won’t matter anyway. For behavior change to really happen, people need to be both willing and able – and we need to make it easy to take action. I see it as my job to offer people solutions to make behavior change easier, but I also spend a lot of time helping people understand the issues.


I feel fortunate to lead two companies that are both working towards this goal of a fossil free future. Both companies are owned by the Haarlemmermeer municipality, which is a real pioneer and quite entrepreneurial. I credit this mindset to the fact that Haarlemmermeer was born out of change when its land was reclaimed from the water. And from the fact that the threat of climate change is real, as the municipality – on average – is actually six meters below sea level. Even the aldermen and other senior officials realize that change is needed, and they’re willing to bend the rules as needed to make things happen.


Starting small to scale up

Starting small and then scaling up is really my way of driving change. In the coming years, the renewable energy company Tegenstroom will probably roll out to more municipalities. I have been working for a more sustainable world for the past 20 years. And I will continue to do so for many more years.”


For more information on Andrea and her work, check out her LinkedIn profile, follow Andrea on Twitter and check out the Tegenstroom and Meermaker websites (in Dutch). For those who don’t read Dutch: Tegenstroom has installed nearly 9000 solar panels on over a thousand roofs of social housing projects in Haarlemmermeer. The energy these panels generate has a higher value than the rent the people who live there pay for renting them. So net, they save on their energy bill. Meermaker has financed an algae basin, greenhouses on DC or a unidirectional current, a solar field, energy neutral apartments, and energy storage projects, among others.


Interview by Marjolein Baghuis (@mbaghuis) for Change in Context. To read about interesting people, book reviews and other posts about change, communications and sustainability, please subscribe.


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