FF/P Neil McCabe talks to Adam Hyland about his latest venture into sustainability and a greener environment
Back in 2017, Firecall spoke to FF/P Neil McCabe about the incredible work he has done on environmental issues that started out with recycling projects at Kilbarrack Fire Station, and evolved into his innovative GreenPlan that has now become a global initiative that has seen his sustainability programme incorporated into all building planning within Dublin Fire Brigade, Dublin City Council and organisations across the world, culminating in his meeting then-President Barack Obama at the White House.
Now, in the latest venture, Neil, serving with A Watch North Strand, has turned his attention to GROWN Forest, a project run as part of the GROWN ethical clothing business he runs with fellow DFB members Damian Bligh of D Watch Blanchardstown, and Stephen O’Reilly at D Watch, Dolphin’s Barn.
Featured on RTÉ’s Eco Eye in August, GROWN Forest represents the impact we can make together by preparing land and forests for future generations to enjoy, with a native tree planting project providing the chance for each individual to make a tangible difference to the environment and embrace ‘the power of one’.
It has become an exciting branch of the GROWN ethical clothing business, which grew out of a mission to reduce the amount of plastics making their way into Ireland’s waterways.
“We started off as a project to educate people on the amount of plastic waste that was in the ocean,” Neil explains. “Myself, Stephen and Damian swim a lot, and we found that every time we went for a swim we were coming out with a bag of plastic. We wanted to highlight this, because a lot of people don’t know that when you wash your clothes, microbeads are released because clothing has so much plastic and synthetic fibre in it. This makes its way to the ocean and has a terrible effect on marine life.
“We developed an organic t-shirt range that eventually expanded to other garments, all with the purpose of saying to people that there are other ways to buy clothing, to buy better clothing, that shouldn’t cost the earth, literally.”
He explains how the idea for a tree planting project came about. “I got the idea of planting a tree for every item of clothing we produced, regardless of whether it sold,” he says. “It has always been a lifelong dream for me to develop forestry and to grow the idea that ordinary people can have a tree planted for them because they bought an item of clothing.
“That idea took hold, and for the last two Black Fridays, we closed down the webpage and said to people that if you are online on Black Friday buying something with money you don’t have, for somebody who doesn’t really want something from you anyway, why not buy a native Irish tree instead, and have it planted in Ireland? We got such a good response from it that it became GROWN Forest, and I left the clothing side to the others to spearhead it.”
The idea is that the company has bought a collection of joined-up areas of land that have been legally protected so that no trees can be cut down within them, and gives the public the opportunity to buy their very own native Irish tree, enabling them to reduce their own carbon footprint. In many ways, it’s the perfect gift.
“The most amazing thing about what we are doing is knowing that the trees we plant will outlive us,” Neil says. “They won’t be cut down, so this is creating a legacy. You can buy a tree for any occasion – a birth, marriage or death – you pick the species of tree, and we have certain land belts where we plant the specific trees such as Irish oak or holly. The person gets a native tree put in the ground which is then barcoded and verified, and once it has been established, they can eventually go and see their own tree.”
MAKING A DIFFERENCE
With the world and how we live in it turned upside down by COVID-19, Neil feels that there has been a definite shift in mindsets towards new behaviours in consumerism and views on the environment.
“We live such a resource-easy life, but with COVID, people are looking at their own families, at their homes, and I believe that from what I have seen in 12 years of working in environmental matters that definitely in the last few months people have become more environmentally conscious, they can see the needless, fast-paced consumerism we had been used to, but also that we can get by with what we have, we don’t need such a resource-easy supply chain. A gift like a tree is far more meaningful than buying something commodity-based. It’s choosing to make a change. People are starting to say I want to be a part of that change, and that is what I am trying to achieve.”
Again, it all goes back to the individual realising that they can make a difference.
“Undoubtedly, there are still fossil fuels burning, there are still emissions, so many environmental issues still happening,” Neil says, “but generally, there has been a shift in the psyche where people have become more environmentally conscious, and they are realising that little changes all add up.”
Still in its infancy as a start-up, GROWN Forest is growing in popularity and support as not just a business but an ethos.
“What’s positive is that people are not just buying a tree, they are buying into what it is all about,” Neil agrees. “We get return customers and people who just want to be a part of what we are doing. They are buying into something completely different. It’s a full-blown legacy that will outlive all of us.”
This has led to welcome expansion, with new land recently acquired in Wicklow and plans in place to start planting trees in the coming weeks, and some people will get the chance to take part in this planting: something that is proving very popular.
“We get people down to the land to plant the trees, to get soil under their nails, which is a brilliant day out,” Neil explains. “People are completely outside of their natural environment, spade in hand, planting trees they didn’t even know the name of before, but now they know the different species, how to plant them, where they should grow, so it’s a really good day out. There is nothing as amazing as planting a big native Irish tree, and knowing it is growing, to be able to say I planted that, and to be able to look around and see 1,000 of them. It’s a really special feeling.
“A lot of people reach out to us asking if they can be involved, and we actually have to cull the numbers because there are too many, we ended up doing a lottery because so many people want to take part. But that’s a good complaint to have.”
Neil says that he has received a lot of positive feedback from his DFB colleagues, many of whom have already bought a tree for a loved one, and are getting the message out that you can make a difference by doing this.
“It’s a meaningful gift,” Neil says, “and a lot of DFB members are very interested in that. It all goes back to the power of one – what can you do? You can buy better, and if it doesn’t cost a fortune, and it’s native Irish, there’s a whole story to it. We also give a card that is embossed, environmentally friendly, hand-cut and printed, with the different tree species on them, so there is really nice, tangible element to the gift.”
Speaking about how proud he must be of his achievements with GROWN, Grown Forest, and the GreenPlan, Neil looks back on their humble beginnings.
“I’m coming up to my third year in North Strand – which is a terrific place to work – after 12 years in Kilbarrack,” he says. “I wanted a change, but Kilbarrack has been a big part of my life for so many years and I undertook a lot of different projects there for the DFB and Dublin City Council. Kilbarrack was the start of my GreenPlan career as a side project to my work as a FF/P, and that has grown incredibly over the years. We used to joke for years in the station that I would be on the ambulance one day and meeting the President of the United States the next, but then that happened in real life!
“I’m proud of that, but also of the impact my work has had on the DFB, and on fire brigades and other organisations all over the world. The GreenPlan is now being followed in 51 countries and in five languages. There are more than 100,000 applications of the GreenPlan in action globally, it’s a full-blown social enterprise with a real impact, creating a procedure-based system for green living. I could go on for hours talking about it, I am so proud of it. But it had a humble origin in Kilbarrack fire station, with no budget.”
It’s a huge achievement that the GreenPlan has been incorporated into the planning for all DFB builds, and those of organisations worldwide, and due to its importance, it has become the norm, which again is something Neil is very proud of.
“Every new build, every renovation and refurb, every upgrade, has to follow these procedures and they are set in stone – renewable technology, energy consumption, carbon emissions, waste water, impact on the environment. But we have the luxury now of being able to say everything has been set up and is in place, the procedures are still live, and we don’t have to worry about whether something will be done in the future because they are all part of the procedures and will be done automatically as part of the process. The groundwork is there already.
“We did that at Skerries retained station when that was built from scratch, it was all just part of the norm, and the best part is that it is a cultural, behavioural shift, where people are now saying that this is just part of the norm, this is how you go about any build or refurb. Finglas and Phibsboro were overhauled following the same process, and it has gone across the whole DFB and Dublin City Council now, as well as across the world.”
That global reach is also seen in another one of Neil’s concerns, Ashoka, of which he is an Irish Fellow and climate change advisor. The organisation emphasises and enables the ability for people to make real change in society.
“Ashoka is a huge part of my life and one of the things I am most proud of,” he tells me. “It means the word to me. I bring the GreenPlan to the table and use Ashoka as a global platform to bring its ethos around the world. It’s great to have an organisation like that which says we want to help and provide a solution to a problem, and for me, it’s an Irish-based solution to the global climate crisis, and it’s really rewarding to see it in action.”
This global platform led to what Neil describes as “the culmination of my work”, when last year, he and other Ashoka Fellows met in Madrid and drafted a climate response plan that would make its way to the UN where it has been taken on as an important programme for climate action.
“The event in Madrid was mind-blowing in terms of the impact, the people involved,” he says. “The top ten CEOs from the top ten companies in Spain were there, major business leaders coming together to talk about the climate crisis, the responses they could make. For me, that was the most fulfilling moment. I had spent years trying to explain that this was a crisis, that if the air isn’t clean, we can’t breathe, and if we can’t breathe, we will die. Climate change is as big as that. And to see that now I don’t have to do that kind of work anymore because climate change is being recognised as such a major issue, shows that 12 years haven’t been wasted. That’s so fulfilling.”
As with his journey from Kilbarrack to the White House a few years ago, Neil muses on the fact that he is able to talk about UN campaigns he has been involved with and addresses to global business leaders, while sitting in an ambulance in North Strand, but as with the GROWN Forest tree-planting project, great things come from humble beginnings.