Ahead of the European Final of ClimateLaunchpad, we caught up with ECCI-backed Scotland winner Will Brown, founder of Return to Nature, to find out more about this innovative start-up and what makes them tick.
What is your company and product all about, in a nutshell?
In a nutshell, Return To Nature offers our customers the right to burial on ecologically degraded land in Scotland that is reforested as part of the burial fee – using nature to support the grieving process of those left behind whilst sequestering around 25% of our customers' lifetime carbon emissions. Like most things, it is far more complex than that, sitting at a fascinating intersection of deathcare, mental health, rewilding and rural economies.
Tell us about your background.
I have always been obsessed with understanding how the world works. That began as a designer with making things. From there, I could see that things were nestled inside the system of businesses, so I worked for some years in business model innovation consulting. From there, I could see that businesses are nestled inside the system of our planet, so I am applying my design and business background to creating new human systems that can regenerate the ecological systems that we have broken.
What plans do you have for expansion?
Everywhere, people die. Everywhere, human systems are destroying nature. Therefore, there is plenty of scope to expand the concept of rewilding nature through burials to other countries and cultures. A similar model can be applied to countries with similar land use (the rest of UK, and Ireland), or adjusted to countries with beautiful old growth forests that need protection from deforestation (such as Romania).
What’s your ultimate goal?
It is quite abstract, but my ultimate goal is for our human identity to return to nature. The simple act of returning the atoms that were given to us by nature after death reminds us that we never really left. Whether we like it or not, our every action is intertwined with nature and the sooner we start acting like that, cognizant of our impacts on the planet, then the better our prospects of a meaningful, safe and fulfilling future.
What is your greatest achievement?
Indulging the curiosity and wonder of my little sister's interest in the ocean to cheer on her development as a marine biologist who I imagine will do great things in the future.
Your views on Scotland and Edinburgh’s sustainability scene?
I see huge potential for positive change due to the increasing levels of engagement of Scots with their land (a recent Scot Gov SPANS report found that engagement with the outdoors has increased by a staggarding 15% over less than 10 years). Being connected to the place you live in is essential to taking actions that care for and advocate for good stewardship of that land. The recent land reform movement is emblematic of this shift towards a Scotland that is better than sustainable, but regenerative in our actions and design of human systems.
What role did the support offered to you by ECCI/CLP play in your success?
ECCI & CLP has been a wonderful combination of being challenging and supportive. It was great to be challenged to hone the pitch of Return To Nature to what it is all about. At the same time, the support of such intelligent yet caring people has been instrumental on the long and sometimes lonely path of setting up a business. The introductions made by my mentor are still rippling outwards as those introduced have introduced me to others and they have made introductions further still.
Why are competitions that support green innovation important during Covid-19?
Outwith the death and anxiety, lockdown was a weird and wonderful pause to business as usual. Many had a moment to reflect on the life they really want to live. Not surprising to discover that we prefer family time, working from home, and walks in nature over working long hours, long commutes and frantic cities. If we do not make the post-Covid recovery a green one, and just return to business-as-usual then I do not know of another opportunity for the level of systemic change required to avert the imminent climate crisis. Every innovation from now on simply must be a green innovation.
How do you relax?
Predictably, I feel most relaxed in nature. Whether it is walking under the dappled shade of a forest awed at the multitude of nature's variance, or ascending a mountain to see the landscape change before my eyes, or to sit by a river transfixed by its ever-changing yet enduring presence.