An Exclusive Interview with Idris & Sabrina Elba

Featured in VICTOR Magazine Issue 7.

With the spotlight on the world’s most influential and privileged to address climate change and their own carbon footprint, will they rise to the challenge or shy away from responsibility? Over a fireside chat with Clive Jackson, Idris and Sabrina Elba open up about their commitment to be transparent about balancing the demands of Hollywood and the environment; and inspiring others to do the same.

When actor, DJ, producer and possibly the coolest man in Hollywood, Idris Elba, and his wife, actress and model Sabrina Elba, agreed to talk to me about the demands of Hollywood and their responsibility to address the environmental impact of this lifestyle, I replied: “pick a time that suits”.

Well they did: 23:00 GMT/18:00 EST. Naturally, he was on location (somewhere undisclosed). He and Sabrina very kindly spoke about what mattered most to them and their desire to reconcile a lifestyle that spans as many cities and continents in a week as some of us fly in a year. I’ve seen Idris being interviewed before, but this was different. He was totally unreserved and incredibly forthright about what matters to them both.

He understands the privilege they enjoy has come from hard work. Not many actors can claim to have worked a night shift at the Ford assembly plant in Dagenham, Essex, before eventually becoming an icon. Most importantly, he recognises that privilege comes with a responsibility far greater than himself, his fame, fortune, and frankly his years. For me, it’s not easy calling out the aviation industry as a major contributor to global emissions. The same goes for those that sometimes have little option but to fly privately – it’s part of their job. So, thank you Idris and Sabrina and congratulations on your commitment to 400% carbon offset on every flight you take.

When you read all that’s in the media about climate change – do you fear for the future of our planet?

Idris: This might be a controversial answer, but I don’t fear for the planet. The planet is going to survive as it has done for billions of years and will regenerate. We on the other hand will not, through every fault of our own, and we are affecting the quality of life of our children and the generations of the future.

As someone who has what the press would call a jet set lifestyle, why does aviation and climate change attract so much attention?

Idris: When we peel the onion back to reveal the big contributors to pollution, air pollution is right up there. When people think of the climate, they look to the sky. Everyone has a right to travel for work or vacation, but we all have to share the responsibility. In the private aviation sector, there is certainly far greater scrutiny over whether we should fly this way and, if we do, how can we do it differently. I think that the truth of the matter is that the private aviation sector is extremely high profile and a lot of money is spent getting people from one part of the world to the other in these incredible vehicles that unfortunately also pollute our world.

Sabrina: So, on one hand, it’s right that the microscope be put on the private jet sector and, whilst it only contributes a small proportion of total aviation emissions, I think it’s time that aviation as a whole looks at the pollution it generates and finds a way to this put this right. It needs to set an example that will drive change and inspire people to think about changing their behaviour at home.

Last year, commercial aviation accounted for 4.2 billion passenger journeys and that’s set to double in the next decade. Whose responsibility should it be to tackle this issue: government, corporations or consumers?

Sabrina: Well, I think it needs all the above. There are some airlines that are doing it the right way by letting consumers carbon offset their flights, but we need some real government leadership as well as for industries and corporates to guide the way.

Victor is really doing the right thing in its space by advocating for change and setting an example for others to follow, but there does have to be a collaboration.

Idris: In tough times, we look to our government for guidance. What is really needed right now is for governments to take a united stand and truthfully say, “guys this is what’s going on and here’s our approach to tackling climate change.” Industry needs to follow suit, but right now consumers have the most power in advocating for that change. We can be very vocal. It’s this outcry from consumers that is going to push governments into action. So, as Sabrina says, it’s all hands on deck.

Why does this matter to you?

Idris: We are eager to help amplify the issues. Many of us don’t know how to address the issue of climate change but want to better understand the facts. Yes, we pollute by flying, yes, we pollute when we travel by car, but we can only tackle this when the majority of the people who are conscious of their environmental impact find a practical way to reduce their carbon footprint. We are very conscious that we may be called hypocrites given that we fly. We are also mindful that some may say we are only interested in environmentalism because it seems ‘on trend’, but we want to learn to step into the ‘right line’.

We want to educate people along our journey, setting an example that we are willing to accept responsibility and not just talk.

There are two obvious choices for the consumer, abstinence or neutralise through carbon offsetting. Is there a right answer?

Sabrina: It’s interesting that you ask that because we hear both arguments often. People ask if we can attend events via Skype or not take as many aircraft. I think people forget that aviation has been one of the greatest inventions, enriching the lives of billions of people. It’s enabled us to be more places, do the things that we can do, get the jobs we need. Abstaining is an option of course but it is an ideal, sometimes it just isn’t practical. So, there must be a balance. People need to be conscious of that fact that they are maybe flying too much, so limit their use and then offset wherever possible.

Idris: The strategy of scaremongering people into action isn’t a particularly smart one, so I don’t think advocating drastic measures such as stopping flying or stopping travelling altogether is the way to engage and inspire people into action. What we need to focus more on is encouraging people to clean up after themselves, replant and re-nourish the world via their offsetting contribution.

Do you think it’s fair that those who pollute the most should have the biggest obligation to put this right?

Sabrina: When it comes to big corporations and companies there has to be ownership starting with those that pollute the most. Some of the initiatives you talked about Clive: acknowledging the problem and creating ownership where people don’t want to be scrutinised is an important first step. If everything were transparent companies would be more likely to adhere to public opinion. When it comes to the consumer, the planet is a universal responsibility which we should all accept. When it comes to corporations, by just changing their values and creating transparency, by default they will have a big impact.

When it comes to disruptive protests, does the ends justify the means, especially when it can adversely impact people’s lives, livelihoods and wellbeing?

Idris: Where do you draw the line? You really could have a big debate as to what is just. We have to be reasonable. I think protesting is amazing, but it can be potentially very damaging, considering all the knock-on effects. When you’ve got one thousand people stranded on a platform, you’ve got cell phones going through the roof, you’ve got massive stress levels and the dangers of what could happen if someone has a stroke or gets into a fight as we have seen.

Someone gave me a real earful because I flew to Ibiza to DJ a major opening. It was my job and I had no option but to fly. The fact of the matter is a plane going from London to Ibiza with four passengers produces roughly the same amount of carbon emissions as most people driving about in a 4×4 car for 90 days. Whatever we do, we must be conscious of the decision we make and address the consequences of free choice.

To set an example for others…would you publish your flying history over the past 12 months and specifically how you have chosen to mitigate your carbon emissions?

Idris: Certainly, and I have shared with you in order to investigate how best to organise our mitigating strategy, but it will highlight one thing: that the volume of my air travel is 99.9% work related.

In truth the demands on our business schedule are incredibly high. We sit amongst a group of people that work in a global industry and hence the need to travel. However, we are now far more conscious of our actions.

Even just meeting you, Clive, the awareness of our carbon footprint has gone through the roof. It’s great because it makes us think a little more every time we make a decision to fly.

We definitely lean towards offsetting in the short term before more sustainable bio- or synthetic fuels and electric planes come to the market. Making a contribution is not to clear our conscience but because we can actively contribute to reforestation. If the offset that I pay supports this then it can only be a positive. If we can get more people doing that it doesn’t mean they can fly more but it means more trees will be planted.

How can Hollywood play a role in influencing opinion and ultimately behaviour; does it start with the studios or the actors?

Idris: I do think actors, producers and executives in the film industry could set an example to offset their flying. However, I think some may be fearful of rubbing the industry up the wrong way unless the public recognise they are using their position to take a stand and support the initiative rather than vilify them. What is certain is that this is a process that will need to take several steps of evolution before we get it right.

Sabrina: I imagine if every actor demanded that their flights be offset that would create massive change.

Idris: I’m interested in how we can play a small part in getting a major industry like Hollywood to consider its contribution to global warming and perhaps in encouraging my industry and other actors to amplify this message.

We hear this word bandied around a lot, so what does a more sustainable future mean to you?

Sabrina: If you care about the next generation, those who you’ve raised and love, our communities and our families then we don’t have a choice, we have to act now. It’s about the survival of the human race.

Idris: A more sustainable future for me means let’s cut back on our waste and get away from a throwaway culture. Let’s think about recycling water bottles that are refilled hundreds of times as opposed to just once. Let’s think about clothing that is recycled. Let’s think about the adaptability of things and what value they might bring to someone else. As Sabrina said it’s survival but also sustainability and building things that sustain; that last.

Looking at your role as an actor at the top of your game, can you play a part in getting more involved with the issues of climate change?

Idris: The spotlight which comes to actors provides us with a voice and opportunity to amplify important messages. For me, I want to be transparent and recognise that I am still learning and will continue to learn. I am not afraid to say: hey, I’ve made some mistakes, I don’t know everything, but I acknowledge my responsibility towards the environment and want to move forward in a different way.

Sabrina and I think about innovation and what we can do. In a way we are a start-up brand. We are channelling a new energy that comes from having fallen in love and wanting to help others. We are both proud Africans who believe that Africa has a big part to play in this. We are ready to be outspoken and spread the message and hopefully lead by example. We want the world to be a better place.

Having this open dialogue with you and your team at Victor that are dedicated to this environmental mission of addressing aviation emissions has allowed us in the short time we have known each other to move the dial a little bit. I wouldn’t have done that had I not met you.

The fact that I have this access to you, and you’ve got this access to me and we’ve got this access to the film and entertainment network, I think that’s powerful. Power is collaboration and the coming together of people with a shared mission and passion.

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