After winning an NUS Green Impact Challenge Student Leadership Award in 2020, Charlie has again been recognised for his work by winning a Vice-Chancellor’s Social Impact Award 2020/21: an award that acknowledges outstanding students at the University.
Here’s what the judges had to say about why Charlie was selected this year:
“Charlie Barty-King is a highly motivated Wolfson College PhD student in Engineering, with extensive and varied experience across STEM, hospitality and social sectors. He has excellent administrative and communication skills and values being a net positive to those around him with kindness and honesty. He has contributed energetically to the students’ association and more recently in the founding of the open access Green Society of Wolfson College and launching of the college’s Sustainability and Conservation research Hub. He holds Masters in Chemistry and in Research (Ultra Precision), studies next generation sustainable materials and holds an NUS Green Impact Challenge Student Leadership Award.”
Charlie was one of nine winners chosen from 67 nominations across the University, and this year the judges were especially impressed by “the dedication and resilience of the students [who], throughout these challenging times, stayed committed to achieving outstanding social impact.”
We spoke to Charlie about the origins of his passion in sustainability and how we manages to enthuse and engage others in College.
Thank you, it was incredibly flattering to win the award! There are a lot of people doing a lot of good stuff in Cambridge, so to be chosen among them is really exciting.
You’ve been so successful at engaging with people. What tips would you give other students who want to engage and involve people in making a difference?
I know it's clichéd, but I think you have to make it fun. Or rather, create a situation in which people can have fun should they want to - people don’t respond well to it being imposed or fake.
Second, I’d say don’t feel awkward if no one comes to an event! I’ve done plenty of events where no-one or very few people show. Some people would find that a big turn-off and it stops them from ever doing it again. But you need to have those events to understand where you got things wrong and then advance. It’s not a popularity contest. If you’re expecting 50 people to come to every single event you do, you’ll be sadly disappointed!
Also, don’t be afraid of seemingly boring things. Some people always want to have great value or great impact every single time. But you’ve got to focus on what's immediately in front of you and over time things will fall into place. I think that's something that I took stupidly long time to realise. Now I take a much more pragmatic, or perhaps realistic, approach.
Your experience as Ents Officer must have developed your methods of communicating with people?
Yes, although I’ve been paying attention to marketing and advertising a lot in my life. One of the things my parents talk about is that, when I was younger, I used to apparently repeat adverts to people; I was a bit of a sucker for an advert. I'd pass a B&Q and be like, ‘did you know this is the place to hammer down prices?’! Now I’m older, I find the dynamics of social interaction really interesting.
For events, I find just getting the key information right at the top was a game-changer, rather than trying to tell a long-winded ‘isn’t-this-so-interesting’ story first. Just tell people the need-to-know information to make it easy for them to decide if they’ll come at a glance. Do less convincing and focus your efforts on making what you do actually good. People will then be more likely to listen next time when you’re trying to make some event or other visible. Build from there!
What sparked your interest in sustainability?
When I was younger, I was confused by how much people and myself consumed, and I really started to notice litter in the environment. Honestly, once you start to notice litter you see it everywhere you go; I really can't unsee it. Even if you go to the middle of nowhere on a hiking trail in a sparse country, there is always something. That really made sustainability a noticeable concept in my head. The challenge I actually set people, and badger some friends about sometimes, is ask people to notice when there isn't litter. How long can you go without seeing a piece of litter? It's truly difficult and applies globally. The sides of motorways and railways are usually the worst. Non-stop litter.
How did that interest turn into a passion, then?
I ended up doing a year abroad, an industrial placement in the Netherlands. I was working on a sustainable detergent formulation and really enjoyed the sustainable aspect. I found that really rewarding, more so than the actual day-to-day work. The concept of doing sustainability was really appealing. That stuck with me, and after a lot of projects where I've tried to put a sustainability spin on it each time, I eventually wanted to do something with a more direct sustainable impact. A very natural place for that was to run for Green Officer at Wolfson.
Tell me about the Sustainability and Conservation Hub at Wolfson.
The S&C Hub is about constantly raising the bar for sustainability within the College. It’s interdisciplinary, so it’s a bit of a testbed for seeing how, for example, we can engage history students in the concept of sustainability, or how we might better engage the creative industries. I think these are topics which are often kind of interesting bar chat, but they're not getting any real serious thought, at least, not visibly. At the Hub, we can do that, and we have projects in place where we can engage people and incentivise them to actually try those interdisciplinary things. Our tagline is “experimenting with convening interested individuals and organisations to inform, educate, and explore disruptive solutions to combat the destruction of the natural world”. We also have an engaged Fellowship, alumni and staff at Wolfson, amongst others, who are very keen to see this happen.
What are the initiatives that the Hub's done so far that you're, that you think, have had the most impact?
There’s a lot happening, so do check out our page on the website. The thing that really comes to mind right off the bat is the Wolfson Living Lab. It's a very powerful technique, or powerful mechanism, of actionable research. It’s the idea of making sure that research has an actionable outcome every time.
Our S&C Stories project is another aspect. It’s a way for us to record the past and present successes in sustainability and conservation at Wolfson. For example, what I've been doing is approaching some of the Green Officers that were around before me and asking them to tell their story so we can capture that information.
Oftentimes, people do a lot of work in their student associations, in volunteering or just excellent work that isn’t very visible, but there aren't proper acknowledgement mechanisms in place. And so what I see for it going forward is to set up a mechanism that means, after people do fantastic work while they're here, be it a Fellow, staff, student or what have you, they fill out their story, record their achievements, and we save that into the collective memory.
So those are two really big important aspects that I think are really, really exciting. However, that’s the tip of the iceberg. There’s so much going on!
What do you think are the big challenges for the sustainability movement?
I think one of the big, big issues is making it relatable. I think oftentimes the discussion ends up being about power consumption and energy production and food waste, and elements like that. And while they are accessible to some degree, there is a kind of a barrier to understanding. Gatekeeping is a big issue. You know, who decides what is green and what isn't? Who decides what the terminology is? It really needs to be something which we can have a conversation about, a bit like what we're seeing with gender equality and racial equality. Those conversations are being had now, often led by the people that are most affected, rather than being discussed behind closed doors without a wider audience. I think it's the same with sustainability: we need to have a dialogue about the language we use, the expectations of individuals and society, and how we can make sure we get the message through to everybody in a digestible manner that encourages action. Ultimately, the defining narrative for what a ‘sustainable world’ actually is is fundamentally lacking, and, sadly, that leaves the door open to the greenwashing and obfuscation by relentless capitalism.
You can find out more about the Sustainability and Conservation Research Hub on their webpage.
You can listen to Charlie talking about his Vice-Chancellor's Award 2021 here.