"Trust is all about being purpose-driven with integrity, authenticity and courage."
Pip Kiernan is Chair of Clean Up Australia, an idea that has evolved from one day of annual action three decades ago to an organisation now working with communities, schools, business and government to help all Australians live more sustainably every day of the year. Today the organisation’s focus is as much on preventing rubbish entering our environment as it is removing what has already accumulated.
Clean Up Australia is an inspiring story of how a country put its trust in an idea, and how that idea became a nation-wide community movement.
“It all began with my father Ian, who was an extraordinary and highly practical man who saw a problem. He mobilised a nation to trust him and join him in making a difference to the environment,” says Pip.
The origin of Clean Up Australia is an iconic Australian story. In the late 1980s Ian Kiernan was competing in a round-the-world yacht race. He was so shocked by the pervasive pollution in the Sargasso Sea he returned to Australia and launched Clean Up Sydney Harbour. He only expected a handful of volunteers but was shocked and delighted when 40,000 people showed up. Ian had tapped into a deep concern of so many, and the Clean Up movement was born.
"Authentic, down-to-earth and plain speaking … He loved Australia and wanted to make it better,” recalls Pip. “He was courageous too. He would stand up to what wasn’t right and defend what was. When he made mistakes, he always fixed them and moved on – I think that’s one reason he was so trusted."
Thirty-three years on, Clean Up Australia is a much-loved organisation. Since 1990, over 20 million Australians have participated, and around a million now gather for Clean Up Australia projects across the nation on the first Sunday in March and all year round. The idea expanded globally in 1993 after a request from the United Nations.
As the movement has grown, the founding principles remain the same: To be an apolitical, pro-business organisation powered by the practical, positive actions of grassroots volunteers.
"When you are a purpose-led organisation, like Clean Up Australia, it’s easier to build trust because everything you do is to further that purpose," says Pip.
What sets Clean Up Australia apart, she believes, is its engagement with the community across all age brackets, cultural groups and localities. Some people have done every Clean Up Australia Day since it began. And even in the wake of the pandemic, there are more volunteers than ever, Pip reports.
“Bringing people together to do good, working side by side, is incredibly powerful and they find it so rewarding. Over the years, a huge reservoir of trust has been built.”
“Australians are incredibly generous volunteers, but we don't like being told what to do,” Pip notes.
Clean Up Australia relies on communities and individuals to decide where they see a problem, register their planned activity online and gives them free tools and materials to get the job done. This level of self-sufficiency works well, both for the volunteers and for a charity that runs 51 weeks a year with just six permanent employees.
With climate action topping worldwide agendas, Clean Up Australia’s time has truly come. No longer only about picking up litter, its strategy has evolved to draw on its trust equity to educate the community and advocate for solutions which prevent waste and move us towards a circular economy in conversations with industry and government.
In the mix are urgent issues: phasing out problematic single-use plastics, designing products with end-of-life in mind, product stewardship and broadly bringing on the circular economy. Words Ian may not have used 30 years ago, but the sentiment remains the same.
Pip knows keeping community trust flowing demands staying on purpose. As a leader that means staying true to her authentic self.
“I see myself as the custodian of something very special my father started. I care about it deeply, but I am not my father – I bring my own skills and personality,” she emphasises, adding, “Trust starts on the inside of the organisation and you need to build it out from there.”
The trust the organisation has built and most importantly sustained is extraordinary. The reasons are many but one that stands out is this unshakeable commitment to be stewards for a better future, where passionate people inspire and motivate each other to make a difference. Clean Up Australia was a pioneer, connecting to our concerns for the environment before we truly understood climate impact, galvanising people before social media, building trust before we understood the impact trust can deliver.
Pip may have followed in her father’s footsteps but she has now begun a new journey that so many continue to celebrate, to join and above all, trust.