Written by Joff Alexander-Frye / Photography by Pip Andersen

When you meet someone who is at the top of their game, a leader in their field or a passionate advocate for a certain issue in society, you can’t help but feel challenged and inspired. In a world where charisma seems to trump substance (no pun intended!), it is refreshing when you meet someone whose whole career, approach and set of values is based on substance rather than show.

I recently met such a person when I sat down with recent MBE recipient Sonya Bedford, a Partner and the Head of Energy at law firm Stephens Scown.

Residing in a beautiful Somerset smallholding, with her husband, two daughters and a variety of animals, Sonya has been a trailblazer in a legal career that has merged her deep personal interest in sustainability and her ability as an excellent lawyer. Over the last eighteen years (eight in Exeter and ten years prior in Bristol) she has become one of the leading Energy lawyers in the UK, leading to her receiving several prominent awards and also her recent recognition by the Queen for Services to Community Energy.

Sonya was born in Australia and moved over to the UK at the age of five. Moving through the Somerset education system, she eventually went to study Classics at the University of London before returning to the South West to study Law at the University of Exeter.

From here, she moved into Law for the first time, focusing initially on Strategic Land and Development work which, eventually, evolved into Sustainable Development work. Sonya shared with me that,

Ten years ago, it was almost impossible to carve out a career in renewable energy. Apart from the huge wind-farm projects, for example, there was no way that a full-time busy law practice centred around renewable energy could be sustainable.”.

It seems that Stephens Scown were ahead of the curve though and believed that the renewable energy revolution was going to hit the South West of the UK first, before other parts of the country. So, in 2010, they approached Sonya to see if she would like to come to Exeter and focus on introducing renewable energies to their rural clients. Initially she actually said no, but very quickly re-considered as she could see the opportunity to ride the crest of a fresh wave in her industry.

At first, it was just Sonya and an assistant but, slowly, she went about building her Energy Team, which quickly became an eight-person team, able to advise on all manner of environmental and renewable energy law.

Outside of work, if it were even possible, Sonya seems to be even more of an advocate and activist around environment issues. Having recently achieved an MSC in Renewable Energies (no mean feat alongside a very busy career and family life), she is also the founder of Exeter Community Energy, an innovative social enterprise that enables local people to take ownership of renewable energy projects. Furthermore, she is a staunch supporter of low carbon living and other community energy initiatives, including taking her home village of Wedmore on a sustainability mission to become zero-carbon. Sonya does not do things by halves and her potent passion for sustainability is truly something to behold.

Whilst discussing her recent MBE, Sonya humbly stated that she didn’t at all expect that type of recognition and, to this day, doesn’t know who nominated her for it. She is convinced that it wasn’t someone at work and, whoever it was, expressed her deep thanks and gratitude for it. In a light-hearted moment during our conversation, she said,

When the letter arrived from Her Majesty’s Service, my husband intercepted it, hid it inside a brown HMRC envelope and gave it to me one morning. I did what I do with any tax-related post; put it in a pile somewhere intending to look at it at some point. I certainly didn’t treat it as important. He kept asking me to open it, which I thought was strange and, eventually, he convinced me to open it. I was totally shocked to see a letter written by the Prime Minister, recommending me to the Queen for an MBE.

One of the most significant challenges that Sonya faces in her role is how to have integrity with her carbon-footprint; particularly as her role involves a significant amount of air travel. Sonya unpacked her attempts to mitigate any flight-related carbon-footprint that she has by, for example, choosing to travel two days per week by train rather than car. This regularly causes delays and frustration for her, but she does it anyway in the knowledge that it is offsetting against the unavoidable air travel to places like the Isles of Scilly. She joked that swimming might be the most zero-carbon option but might not be the most efficient form of travel! She told me about her use of advanced carbon-calculators to work out exactly the carbon-impact of her decisions (again a time-cost but an environmental kindness).

Another way that Sonya mitigates her carbon footprint is that she has chosen to be vegetarian (giving up meat and dairy completely). The Zero Carbon Britain report, published by the Centre for Alternative Technology in Wales, educates people on the key ways that they can positively affect their personal carbon footprints. They say, that the best thing you can do is to cut out meat and dairy from your personal diet due to the carbon-heavy production processes involved. Of course, this is a personal thing, but Sonya was deeply convicted to make this personal change and hasn’t looked back since.

Perhaps the weightiest of the driving forces behind Sonya’s approach is her unshakeable belief that, in society, there is power in numbers. Whether tackling issues surrounding race, gender or the environment, if enough people get behind a cause and start ‘voting with their feet’ it isn’t long before legislation, economies and communities start following suit.

When asked how other businesses could ‘up their game’ in terms of their environmental awareness and impact, Sonya said,

“It has to start with honest conversations around Corporate Social Responsibility and Sustainability policies. Then, looking at the way that you dispose of your waste and aiming for Zero-to-Landfill is an easy-win. Also, looking at travel (both for your staff and your suppliers) is a productive exercise; making sure that people and goods aren’t travelling needlessly or using methods of transport that unnecessarily damage the environment. It is simple, but difficult to do well.”.

As our time drew to a close, I reflected on our time together and found myself feeling thankful that there are people like Sonya who, tirelessly, campaign and work on the behalf of the masses to provide and protect a greener future for our planet.

Not all superheroes wear capes.

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