Solitaire Townsend's green route to riches

Solitaire Townsend started her 'green' public relations agency from a dingy office in Brixton. Now her firm, Futerra, boasts a turnover of more than £2m.

She's known as the Jimmy Choo environmentalist the eco warrior who swapped spiky hair and denims for a red pair of patent heels, and a grey pin-striped Calvin Klein suit. Solitaire Townsend, 34, would be the first to admit that her change of image has been a vital part of her success. "If you want to change the world, you have to be prepared to cut your hair and wear a suit," says the founder of Futerra, a public relations agency that focuses on sustainable development. "The shoes maketh the woman."

Born on a "nasty" Bedfordshire council estate, Townsend was first arrested at the age of 15 for protesting outside a nuclear waste dump close to her home.

A committed environmentalist, who owes her first name to Jane Seymour's character in the James Bond film Live and Let Die, she was involved in 'direct action' for several years, until she took a masters degree in sustainable development at the age of 26. "I realised things were far more complicated than I originally thought," she says, and that there were better ways of bringing about change than chaining herself to the fences of nuclear power stations.

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In 2001, along with Ed Gillespie, a fellow student and marine biologist who had spent several years "counting fish in the Cayman Islands", she set up Futerra near Brixton in south London, aiming to push green issues in a more professional way. "The idea was that promoting green and social issues deserved the same quality and professionalism as selling a packet of crisps."

But convincing the likes of Greenpeace to sign up to the idea was a different matter they considered "PR, marketing and advertising as part of the problem". And working out of "the mugging capital of London" in an office shared with "ten mice, two rats and a couple of pigeons" didn't make things easier. "We were absolutely boot-strapped. But when we set up, nobody had any kids or mortgages, so we were more than happy to live off tins of spaghetti soup."

Taking in £8,000 a month, things were tough until an independent funding body, the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts, gave them £100,000 in 2002 to make two short films on climate change, starring a 17-year-old Keira Knightley. Impressed by the films, BT, the World Wildlife Fund and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs all hired Futerra to promote their own work on green issues.

But "the big turning point came five years ago", when Futerra won a government contract to develop "the UK's first climate change communication strategy". That saw turnover hit £1m, allowing the firm to move to smarter offices near London Bridge.

With a turnover of more than £2m today, Futerra now operates from a Grade-I listed building in the City. A bit like her change in dress sense, it's a factor, she says, in the success of the company.

"Green and social issues shouldn't be promoted from funky little lofts or in horrible little dark alleyways in Brixton. This stuff is now mainstream. So being able to bring a client into a listed building with a chandelier and advising them on how to communicate environmental issues is how it should be."

Jody Clarke

Jody studied at the University of Limerick and she has been a senior writer for MoneyWeek for more than 15 years. Jody is experienced in interviewing, for example in her time she has dug into the lives of an ex-M15 agent and quirky business owners who have made millions. Jody’s other areas of expertise include advice on funds, stocks and house prices.