Sami Grover is Creative Director and Writer at The Change Creation, a creative agency that helps good-for-the-world businesses and non-profits communicate who they are and what they stand for. At the Change, Sami’s clients include Larry’s Coffee, Burt’s Bees, The Dogwood Alliance, and Jada Pinkett Smith/Overbrook Entertainment’s ‘Don’t Sell Bodies’ campaign. Sami also happens to be a trusted partner at The Redwoods Group, where he has worked closely with our marketing team for years.
Outside of The Change, Sami is a freelance writer with a focus on environmental sustainability. His work includes writing for TreeHugger, Mother Nature Network, Weather Underground and Etsy.
I was excited to learn more about Sami’s path to becoming an Arc Bender and his advice for people that want to change the world. When asked where we might want to go to take a portrait that would help tell his story, I quickly learned that right near the Redwoods office is a ‘trash beach.’ We took a nice stroll and picked up trash because every little bit of impact matters. I had no idea that this lake that I stare at, day in and day out, in a remote area, would actually accumulate trash.
You have such an impressive body of work. What initially inspired you to make a difference & how did you find your way to a career where you get to make a difference?
It depends how far you go back.
When all of my friends in high school were hanging out and breaking into their parent’s liquor cabinet, I was volunteering with Friends of the Earth. Granted, sometimes I’d meet up with them later to finish things off…
In all seriousness, I’ve been involved in environmentalism actively since 13 and 14, going to protests and trying to make a difference where I could. I distinctly remember, however, struggling with the fact that my skills were not anything I could understand as being good for the environment or useful to the environmental movement. I wasn’t a scientist; I’m not a practical human being. I can’t hold a set of tools, so it was very confusing to me to want to become an environmentalist. I didn’t even know whether being an environmentalist was a professional career path. Even my Mom asked me what I was thinking.
So, I went off to school and studied old Icelandic, Danish, and German, with a healthy dose of student activism in my spare time.
The family business was in publishing so, after school, that was where I landed. We published books on minority language rights, education, and sustainable tourism. It was stuff that was important, but wasn’t necessarily my cause. Partially through virtue of it being the family business – my mom, my dad, and my brother were working there – I was able to carve a place for myself.
I started out as Director of Sustainability and worked initially on greening where I was. I think that’s actually an important piece of advice that I often tell people when they want to build a career that makes a difference. I then ask them, well do you want to work for a company that is doing good, or do you want to work for Coca-Cola and make them better?
If you want to do the latter, that’s totally legit.
There are, of course, certain industries that are totally irredeemable, but not many. For example, I wouldn’t advise being Director of Sustainability of a Coal company… some things you’ve got to cut loose. But for the rest of it, I think there is a place to be had. For example, the people working at Shell, working in Electric vehicle charging… I think that’s a legitimate place to be.
I was in publishing for 4-5 years. In my spare time, I was also involved in community gardening, including running a demonstration permaculture garden at Glastonbury festival.
Then I traveled to the states for work and met my wife.
It was actually the last trip I was ever going to take by plane. I had decided I was never going to fly again because of the environmental impact. But on that trip I visited an old college roommate in Carrboro, NC – and I’d known Jenni through him for years. She was finally single. So principles pretty much went out the window:
‘Well, she’s cute… so maybe carbon offsets aren’t so bad.”
Having established that flexibility is an important part of my personal ethics, I moved to the States. Within a few days of moving, I met Jerry, who had founded the Change Creation. Jerry has a background in big business branding. He had worked with Jeep, Mountain Dew, etc. – he sold a lot of SUV’s in his time and had even directed Super Bowl commercials. He founded the Change as a small agency when he’d become more environmentally focused. He was running it as a small agency – working with the Sierra Club, Larry’s Beans (now Larry’s Coffee), and Burts Bees was an early client too.
Initially my title was Director of Sustainability, and I was also writing a lot for TreeHugger in my spare time.
That was when I finally was able to answer that question from 15 years previously on how to be an environmentalist – you do what you do well, in service of your cause. It turns out, environmentalists are often really shitty communicators—so writers and communicators have an important role to play in making their case to the mainstream. It was exciting to work with so many different changemakers to find a way to make their story more compelling.
At the Change, what have been some of the highlights in your work?
Full disclosure, I’m on the board of the Dogwood Alliance now, so I need to mention that, but it’s definitely one of the highlights.
The Dogwood Alliance is an organization protecting Southern forests. When I first started working with them they were tiny… and even now they are still fairly small. In-spite of their size, they have literally transformed how 3 of the largest paper companies in the world manage forests in the Southeastern United States. They have also transformed McDonald’s and KFC’s packaging policies.
One of the early highlights was working with them on the KFC ‘Kentucky Fried Forests’ campaign. Essentially the campaign focused on pushing YUM! Brands to buy recycled paper. It was ultimately successful, and it was an early lesson for me in how effective, sustained communication can really change things. That’s been a big highlight for me.
Working with Redwoods has also been a highlight. It has been really fun getting involved in an organization that you really have to pause to explain. What does insurance for good mean? I like unpacking this type of complex idea.
I also feel a strong connection with all of my long-term clients. Larry’s Coffee is the same way. We do our best work when you can be deeply engaged over a long period of time.
The world doesn’t change because you make a cool logo. When someone calls and says ‘we need a business card’ tonight, I now tend to turn down that type of work.
The only way to communicate effectively is to communicate consistently over many, many interactions with your audience. That’s where I’ve enjoyed my work the most. It’s also great because then I also get to have great relationships with the people there. We get to be a part of the team of various really cool organizations, but we don’t have to limit ourselves to being that team.
What are the biggest obstacles you’ve had to overcome thus far?
I think (1) it’s finding what you’re good at. That takes a number of years. Then, (2) how what you’re good at is related to what is needed in the world.
The third thing is finding the opportunity to do that. I’ve been really lucky in that, or perhaps more accurately, I’ve been privileged. I’ve been able to move around the world with relative security, and have had many of the benefits of a straight, white male with a reasonably comfortable middle class background.
For a lot of other people, that third part – getting the opportunity – is a much bigger deal. That’s why I’m hoping to see those of us that have the opportunity to take the time to understand why we’re not just ‘lucky’ – and we haven’t just created our own luck – but rather we’ve benefitted from opportunities that don’t come so easily to others. And then we take those learnings, apply them, and create opportunities where they don’t currently exist.
That’s a really broad conversation happening right now. For example, Dogwood is in forest conservation. This is often seen as very white, middle class cause. It’s not really… those baring the brunt of forest destruction are rarely the white, affluent communities. Yet the people who have had the luxury to address it professionally often have in fact been white and middle class. At Dogwood Alliance, they’ve been putting a lot of work into (1) addressing environmental justice issues (2) bringing together a diverse set of voices to the table. I also see that happening here at Redwoods. We need a sense of urgency around that conversation.
The other challenge for anyone trying to run a sustainable business, serving other sustainable business… is that the people doing ‘ethical’ work don’t always behave ethically.
That was a pain in the ass to discover. Sometimes people- Fair Trade people—literally wouldn’t pay their bills. In some sense, it’s them trying to protect their mission, which I understand. However, we have a mission too. So we have to protect ourselves and our people.
That took a while for me to get comfortable with.
What advice do you have for people that want to change the world or pursue their passion?
Well regarding what we’re talking about, protect yourself. If you’re a business person – make sure you’re paying yourself and your people a fair wage. Make sure you’re holding your clients and customers accountable. You kind of need to be hard-nosed about it.
Another bit of related advice—for activists in particular—is to take a break. It’s ok to hang out and binge watch Game of Thrones or whatever else you want to do on the weekend. It’s ok to take time off and not think about climate change for a few days. Or go and meditate at a retreat. Do whatever it is you need to do to take a vacation.
A lot of people come to this work because they are anxious and depressed about the way the world is. It’s kind of depressing to say this, but it’s kind of always has been that way.
Humans have always had this capacity to be hugely kind and loving… and we’ve also slaughtered each other. We’ve wiped out species. Both of those things are true and always have been. And worrying about it 24/7 is not going to fix it.
It’s quite liberating in a way… those problems are still going to be there after you take a week away. You’re not going to be short of work to do if you want to make the world better.
We need you to be in your healthiest condition. Also, we need you at your best to do your best work. It’s not about “not caring”, or becoming hard – but it is about getting that right balance and not taking yourself too seriously.