This post was sponsored by Untouched World. All opinions and editorial my own.

One of the nicest things about running your own blog is creating long lasting relationships with people in the sustainable field. There are so many out there doing such fascinating and important things that it just doesn’t feel right to forget each other when the work is over. And while I first spoke to Untouched World, a unique luxury sustainable fashion company based in New Zealand, nearly a year ago now, I’ve continued to follow their journey with admiration since then. I originally agreed to simply review one of their pieces last summer, but I stayed in touch because my interest was sparked by their sustainable education work, work so groundbreaking that it has been recognised as a leading example for others. I’m really excited today to be able share more of this side of their story, as their programmes continue to grow and be developed for use across the globe.

Beyond Untouched World’s commitment to producing sustainable fashion and operating in an environmentally conscious way as a business, they’re also recognised by the UN for their sustainability. Since their beginnings in 1995  they have been invited as one of twelve global exemplars at the United Nations meeting to discuss how to engage the corporate sector in education for sustainable development, they have exhibited at the United Nations Mid Decade World Conference in Education for Sustainable development, and they’ve provided reports and input to the UN’s Sustainable Education initiatives. In 2007 they also became the first, and only, fashion company in the world to carry the United Nations Decade of Education for Sustainable Development (UNDESD) logo, making them one of three global exemplars for empowering and mobilising youth.

This is thanks to the work of Untouched World Charitable Trust (UWCT), which was established in 2000 and uses the profits from their business to deliver vital work in the education sphere. The trust delivers hands on ‘leadership for a sustainable future’ programmes across New Zealand. These programmes provide mentoring from a variety of educators, and the courses focus on biodiversity, water protection and caring for New Zealand’s natural habitats through empowering young people to real action for sustainable causes. Some of the programmes have been running for as long as fifteen years now, and have seen incredible success across the country. I chatted to Untouched World to dive a little deeper into how the programmes work, and their plans for the future.

Why did you decide to create your leadership programmes?

Through the business operations we have many opportunities to study, design and model best practice in ecological, social and cultural impacts. For example full lifecycle cradle to cradle study of our products, thinking at the design stage about fibres/fabrics used through to processing and production distribution, and during-life impacts such as cleaning and ensuring products can be composted, upcycled or recycled at the end of their life. Then there’s general day-to-day business where we’re considering everything from optimising air, water and energy, and keeping people learning and developing, through to ensuring our staff throw their banana skins in the bokashi bucket.  

We then looked for what would deliver benefit the most beyond the reach of the business. After two years of study we settled on leadership development, specifically leadership for a sustainable future. We felt if we could unlock the leader within coupled with an ‘eyes open’ compelling awareness of the imperatives facing the planet, then these young people would go on into their lives making a difference. We felt strongly that this would be the most maximally positive and far reaching impact that could be made.

We teamed up with global ESD leadership expert Dr Barry Law who designs and implements our UWCT programmes and also leads the sustainability development within the company.

There was a major gap in New Zealand for youth leadership training that focused on sustainability.  It was decided to go with intensive 7 day life changing experiences that allow time for participants to reflect, discuss, explore change and decide on appropriate actions.

What do the programmes entail?

All the leadership programme focus on four key concepts

  1. Sustainable practice
  2. Leadership
  3. Working in Teams
  4. Behaviour Change

There are four programmes, the initial Blumine Island biodiversity/conservation project; Canterbury and Otago which are Waterwise programmes, and Ruapehu which is a diversity/conservation Maori immersion programme.

The programmes are intensive 7 day experiences underpinned by experiential learning. There is a strong community partnership model to ensure a diverse experience, ideas and viewpoints are presented to participants.

How did each programme start? 

At the outset Untouched World looked for a conservation and biodiversity project that would engage the minds and hearts of the brand, as well as Charitable Trust stakeholders, staff, boards, suppliers, students, teachers and our customers.  One of our staff tasked with finding the perfect place to start identified Blumine Island as a suitable project – 400 hectares of island, overrun with flora and fauna pests and little birdlife, not too far from the mainland of the South Island of New Zealand.  We then approached DOC and they agreed to do this with us. Blumine wasn’t on their development agenda at the time and this was one of the first DOC/business partnerships; a credit to the leaders to see the potential in doing this, as it was back in 2001.  Having a fashion company turn up and say they want to clear an island of pests, and establish endangered native species on there, wasn’t something that seemed likely to actually happen.

Initially the pilot programmes for new projects are initiated by the UWCT with support partners contributing time, identifying benefits and after the completion and review of the first pilot, programme partners decide if they want to become full programme partners. They all do!

The Canterbury and Otago programmes are called Waterwise, and as the name suggests they are based on water; understanding the imperatives around the whole water issue and that everything is interconnected.  What we do here impacts over there, and vice versa as we have pollution from major Asian rivers feeding out into the ocean and turning up on our beaches. The design of these programmes means the students get to understand the 360 degree issues around water, which are complex. They get practice debating from different sides of various topics so they learn to think through all the issues. For example, the tension between intensification of farming and water quality for drinking, leisure and enjoyment of nature; the damming of rivers to create hydro power and the impact of that on communities and native species.

Who are the programmes for and how can people join?

Programmes are for youth and young adults aged 18-29. This includes secondary school leaders, tertiary student leaders, and teachers in both secondary and tertiary education who are keen to contribute expertise in sustainable practice, leadership, behaviour change or teamwork skills.

We already have partner secondary schools and tertiary institutions in regions that are active associate partners, but we also open applications up to students for each programme through Untouched World’s retail customer and staff base.

Photo by Gianna Scavo: wearing the Queen Bee Jacket by Untouched World, who use their profits to fund their education work

Why is it so important to Untouched World to engage young people?

It is essential that young leaders and leaders of the future understand and develop the skill set required for a more sustainable future. Our programmes are aligned with the UNESCO Global Action programme to build youth leadership globally. Understanding the process and interventions required for change is essential for moving forward.

The work of the UW Charitable Trust aligns directly with the Untouched World business strategy plan in for modelling sustainability, which is itself directly linked to the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDG). 

What are the biggest achievements you’ve seen?

We’ve been invited by UNESCO to join the Global Action Programme. We are the only partner in Australia and New Zealand and have been acknowledged on the UNESCO website as one of three global exemplars in ESD (or ‘in this space’). We’ve been invited to UNESCO headquarters in Paris on 4 occasions, Bonn in Germany twice, Canada, Costa Rica (recently) to support the Decade of Sustainable Development and the Global Action Programme. Our programme director Dr Barry Law has worked with UNESCO globally since 1995 and contributed to a wide range of educational developments in sustainability. One of our aspiring youth leaders, Matt Shepherd, has also been selected to attend a UNESCO youth summit in Costa Rica. Only 50 youth leaders have been chosen globally.  

Additionally we have been invited by the Mahatma Gandhi Institute to partner with them in programme development, youth exchanges and promoting the MGIEP Decade of Kindness SDG initiative. One of our tertiary partners (Otago Polytechnic) is going adopt the UWCT model and pilot and co-develop a new tertiary programme that addresses youth leadership capability through major community projects. This will address specific community needs and build youth capacity to plan, lead and implement action that addresses current sustainability problems in communities. International students will also be invited to join this programme through MGIEP in India.

What are Untouched World’s hopes for the future?

We hope to upscale our programmes nationally and globally. We have always said if just 20% of New Zealand youth were able to go through these programmes we would have a different country. UNESCO are asking us to now broaden this internationally.

How brilliant is this? I love when companies go beyond profit and invest into developing real, tangible action plans for solution, and I love that Untouched World is doing it through education. To create real, lasting change we need innovation, collaboration and real understanding of the problems so that policy can be implemented that creates truly sustainable solutions. I believe education is one of the best ways to deal with issues at the root and find viable alternatives that can be implemented long term, and developing good leadership is also an important way to foster new generations that value the planet and people over profit. I’m excited for the kind of change Untouched World is focused on, and I can’t wait to see more of it in the future.