Benojo chats with Australian environmentalist Ian Kiernan

The first thing that is evident when speaking to Ian Kiernan is how deeply passionate he is about caring for the environment. Benojo caught up with the founder and chairman of Clean Up Australia Day and Clean Up the World Day to learn more about his inspiring story.

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An idea sets sail

I have been an international sailor – both amateur and professional for years – and back in 1986/87 I did the single-handed BOC Challenge race. We were asked to hold all our plastics on board to demonstrate to the 30,000 kids that were following the race in the classrooms just how much plastics we might have thrown into the world’s oceans, but didn’t,” Kiernan says of the event that compelled him to create the Clean Up campaign.

“For a long time I had been most concerned about the huge increases in the level of plastics in the ocean and I wanted to do something about it. So I came home from the race, got some money together and we started Clean Up Sydney Harbour – which was the first one. That went so well it soon expanded it into Clean Up Australia Day and then we exported it to Clean Up the World,” surmises Kiernan of how a local campaign grew to become a global one.

From little things, big things grow

Clean Up Sydney Harbour was the community event that launched it all. Held on Sunday January 8, 1989, Kiernan cites it as his proudest moment (this from a man who was awarded an Order of Australia in 1991): “The biggest thrill of all was that first Clean Up of Sydney Harbour. We thought we’d get a few 1000 people, but some 40,000 turned up. Clearly demonstrating that they care about the environment.”

The next year with the help of co-founder Kim McKay and a committee of friends, Kiernan took the campaign national, with the first Clean Up Australia Day being held on Sunday 21 January, 1990, where over 300,000 Australians took part.

In 1993 with the support of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), Clean Up the World was launched, which an estimated 35 million people in over 130 countries now take part in. This year it will be held over the weekend of September 18-20.

Inspiring involvement 

In 2015, Clean Up Australia – which this year ran over a week from February 24 to March 1 – marks its 25th year. Since its inception, Australians have donated over 28 million hours of their time to cleaning over 302,000 tonnes from over 151,900 sites nationally.

When quizzed about how to inspire involvement in the community, Kiernan says it is about empowering individuals to take part in their own way: “Australia is very democratic. We [Clean Up Australia] have never told people what to do – we know Australians hate being told what to do. But they want to be informed so they can make their own decisions and avoid the regulator. That’s exactly what we provided them with. So they select the sites, they provide the volunteers and we help with publicity, bags and advertising.”

He adds: “Listen to the community, take their advice and empower them to drive your agenda.”

On the future of CSR in business

On the business front, Kiernan welcomes the emerging trend of companies integrating CSR into their models, rather than viewing it as an external obligation.

“That’s driven by the community,” he says. “They’re [businesses] monitoring what the market wants, what their customers want and they have identified that people really care about this issue [in his case, the environment]. And if they are going to be smart they better address it, not in a tokenistic way, but in a fair dinkum way.”

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