‘We need to move from consumption to collaboration’: Ecology CEO looks back

We speak to Paul Ellis, chief executive of Ecology, as he prepares to step down after 25 years at the helm

In 1981, a group of environmental activists joined forces to found the Ecology Building Society – which broke new ground with its dedication to improving the environment by supporting sustainable building practices and communities.

One of those young visionaries was Paul Ellis, who is now stepping down after 25 years as CEO and 40 years of commitment to the society, which has seen its investments grow from an original £5,000 to £15m capital and assets of £250m. 

That small band of idealistic friends has grown to 12,000 members – and counting. 

As one of the original investors, Mr Ellis was campaigning at a time when Greenpeace and the anti-nuclear movement grabbed the headlines but the looming threat of climate change was not even on the agenda for most people. 

“My driving force was really thinking that the progress of humanity should not be at the expense of other species and the planet,” he says. “I was very involved in the emerging environmental agenda and worked with people like Jean Lambert, who went on to become a Green MEP.

“When the idea of the society was mooted, it was the first financial organisation of its type. It made sense to me that we could use our personal financial choices to change the system and reorientate it. We had to go beyond decrying the damage we saw and do something on a personal level alongside pressing for changes in the system.” 

Ecology’s early focus was on avoiding harmful environmental impact, but the team soon realised there was a lot of systemic change needed. “It became increasingly clear that the damage most evidenced by climate change was caused by human activity so that began to change the emphasis of the lending,” adds Mr Ellis. “We had been involved mainly in the renovation of buildings and switched towards new-build energy efficiency.”

Now, as then, the society’s HQ is in Keighley, West Yorkshire. Through the decades, Mr Ellis has seen steady growth in interest from property investors, housing co-ops, newer organisations like Community Land Trusts, and people who just want their savings to be ethically invested.

“There was an acceleration of this after the crash of 2007/8,” he says, “which highlighted the impact of sustainable practices. Our growth since 2010 also reflected concerns about the problems that the Co-op Bank encountered then. A lot of people were looking for an ethical home for their money and wanted to entrust their savings where their capital would be deployed wisely.“ 

The current housing crisis and lack of affordable homes have been another catalyst for change. 

“One of the big developments has been community-led housing,” he explains. “We have been plugging away and supporting that movement for many years. In the last five years, we have really seen it take off with more groups bringing projects to fruition. There is a lot of information sharing and capacity building. Control of housing is a big democratic principle – and that will be how we move to more sustainable housing stock.”

But he warns that serious opportunities to speed up the zero carbon agenda have been lost thanks to failures by central government. 

“What remains to be done is too much – we have lost vital decades,” he says. “We have seen a series of policy failures by a succession of Conservative governments, with the end of the Green Homes Grant and the scrapping of plans by David Cameron to make all new homes zero carbon.

“That means we are now building millions of homes which are going to have to be retrofitted to move up to a standard which brings them to net-zero. We need a big growth in the sustainable finance sector if we are to have a hope of dealing with all aspects of the crisis we face which isn’t just about homes; it is also about transport, the realignment of economy and the end of dirty energy.“

Mr Ellis will be stepping down in 2022 and will still take a keen interest in new projects. 

“It is time for our society to move on to the next phase of development. However, I shall remain involved. There are initiatives like Germany’s Passivhaus movement – buildings created to rigorous energy-efficient design standards. I would like to see it widely adopted across the world as one way we can build to net zero in an efficient way.” 

And he argues that sustainability considerations should be integral to all business decisions.

“We need to move from consumption to collaboration,” he says. “The kind of changes we need should lead and can lead to mutual governance and a bigger role for the co-op model. That is really important and financial regulators recognise that. Look at the deregulated energy market, it is simply not sustainable.”

The retiring CEO has not lost his appetite for radical ideas and is a keen advocate of bold policies like a basic citizens’ income; he wants to see a different kind of global economy, swapping the waste inherent in capitalism and consumerism with an economic system tackling global challenges like climate change, biodiversity loss, waste, and pollution.

“These are all essential if we are to make the changes we need to see,” he says.

This November sees the United Nations COP26 in Glasgow, which will see leaders from 196 nations and thousands of attendees meet to hammer out the world’s next climate change targets. Under the Paris Agreement of 2015, UN countries committed to bringing forward national plans setting out how much they would reduce their emissions. They agreed to come back every five years with an updated plan. The run-up to this year’s summit is the moment – delayed a year due to the pandemic – when countries reveal those plans. But how optimistic should we be?

“I am optimistic on the basis that if we remain optimistic we can make changes we need,” says Mr Ellis. “When we began as a building society, we were derided; now it is accepted we were ahead of our time. I have young people coming to us who are economics graduates studying ecological economics. What would I have given to be able to study that! 

“So many young people are switched on and aware of the problems we face regarding biodiversity – and as long as we do not think ourselves into despondence then we can work to create a good society. That whole idea of not accepting that things cannot improve, and mobilising our own resources to make a difference, remains very powerful.”

As for COP26, he says Ecology will be involved “but the jury has to be out on whether we will make sufficient progress.

“We need to understand it is not just about government. If it was, there would be a problem. We need to mobilise society so that people themselves make the change.”