The dragon breathes green fire

By: Clare Fischer
Date posted: 6 March 2018

Now, let’s get one thing straight, Deborah Meaden didn’t rock up to our Great British Beach Clean event at Sand Bay in a power two-piece and heels with a hard-as-nails expression on her face. To be honest, I thought I may have been extending my hand to the wrong woman when we met – but the voice gave it away! Deborah Meaden isn’t scary at all and she’s far from being a dragon. In fact we had to give her 20p to use the loo… yes, we’ll be dining out on that one for a while!

Deborah Meaden
© Andrew Farrington/BBC

The sea should be in our bones, we’re disconnected from it and we need to reconnect people again.

Deborah Meaden
Deborah Meaden beach clean MCS
© Five Films

One of our Ocean Ambassadors, Deborah is passionate about the planet and she has a love for the sea that stems back to her childhood: “My great grandfather was a herring fisherman in Great Yarmouth and as a small child we used to go and stay with Uncle Derek, who was also a fisherman. He used to sell winkles in Essex and he was very connected to the ocean. I remember him not allowing us to throw anything onto the beach and, in fact, picking litter up whenever we saw it. So somewhere in here is a love of the ocean.”

Deborah believes that, as an island nation, we’re not really concerned enough about the sea and the importance it plays in our daily lives.

“The sea should be in our bones, we’re disconnected from it and we need to reconnect people again. The beach is a good way of doing that because you can go there and look. But the sea is in our everyday lives – the seafood we eat, the water it delivers. The sea makes this planet work and if we don’t take care of it that will be our downfall. When that dies we too die. We don’t care and nurture it in the same way we do our environment. And fish aren’t cuddly are they – who cares about fish? They’ll go on forever, that’s the perception. It worries me that there is a lot of damage being done that we don’t understand the extent of.”

So how do we sort this out? Well, Deborah, who says she was once seen as the nutty green dragon in the early days of the Den as far as the others were concerned, reckons we can all have a hand in the solution.

“People have got to think about the consequences of their behaviour. Where does that waste go when you flush it away and it leaves your house? It ends up somewhere. Look for alternatives, look to do the right thing and talk to people. Asking for a more environmentally friendly alternative can work. I do it. I ask for biodegradable stuff, I refuse a bag. If we interact on an everyday basis by looking at our own lives and the way we do things then we can influence other people. And as consumers the power is in our hands.”

Sand Bay was Deborah’s first ever beach clean. She’s a hands on woman so this type of volunteer activity really appeals to her ‘do the right thing’ and ‘get involved’ ethos.

“It was a lot more fun than I thought it was going to be and it was heart-warming to see so many people wanting to get involved and sort it out. But you know I also found it mildly depressing. It isn’t until you actually look down to the beach that you realise quite how much rubbish there is. When I’m on beaches I’m usually looking across it and on the face of it you can actually think – oh this is quite clean…but once you start paying attention it’s a very different story.”

But if you thought Deborah was all set to throw a pile of cash at the ocean crisis – think again. Her belief is that the answer isn’t money, it’s engagement.

“I think money can sometimes become the issue because we end up buying things completely unnecessarily. Behavioural change is the key – we need to get the message out there. Most people – when they’re given the time to think and they’re allowed to make those connections between their behaviour and the problems that this planet is facing – want to change.”

Down on the beach Deborah was keen to get involved and talk to people, swap ideas and stories about litter finds and making changes at grass roots. Despite looking daggers at would-be entrepreneurs who have failed to make their figures stack up in the Den, she’s incredibly approachable and seemed genuinely delighted to be able to talk to people on the same mission she was on. And that, she says, is why she’s so happy to get involved with MCS.

“MCS is my kind of charity. Because it’s not just about words but actions. It engages with people, and today at Sand Bay was a real example of that. It’s doing stuff and trying to bring these issues into people’s everyday lives.”

But is there enough investment by business into ideas that are either sustainable or low impact? Is the Den the place to be encouraging less damaging innovations? Deborah, who’s been on Dragon’s Den for eleven years, says the tide is turning.

“Green wasn’t seen as a business case over a decade ago – it was just seen as something I really cared about. Then it moved into a phase where people would say they were environmentally friendly but they were just ticking boxes in reality. But you can’t get away with that anymore – people want to know what your green credentials are. So now we’re in a very different phase. I would say most of the businesses that come into the Den now will tackle that issue. They will actually say that they understand if they’re having an impact and show what they’re doing about it and identify what they’ve got planned for the future.”

“I recently invested in a business that came into the Den. It’s a problem area – microfibre towels. Microfibres are a problem that I hadn’t even thought about. So we’re already introducing towels that are made of 30% recyclable plastic and we’re trying to come up with a product that is fully recyclable. It’s an investment that’s been a journey for me too.”

It’s clear that Deborah Meaden has given our oceans and the predicament they face plenty of thought. She’s very measured in her arguments and you can feel her passion for the sea. She feels that the amount of money we spend globally on things we will only end up throwing away could be a barrier to finding solutions. Ranting at those who don’t understand the issue is pretty useless and she’s ambivalent about the role of governments.

“What I feel about a government is that it should not get in the way. Government involvement can get very heavy, very bureaucratic and it can disengage people. What governments should do is allow platforms for organisations like MCS to be able to do their job, because they are the people who should be doing it not the government. Particularly now with social media – the most powerful thing is people engaging with people.”

MCS, not successive governments, has been tracking the issue of beach litter for over 25 years. That gives the charity a deep knowledge and understanding and there’s nothing like historic data and being really embedded in a topic to intelligently tackle the issue.”

This article was written for our winter 2017 membership magazine ‘Marine Conservation’. If you’d like to receive our fantastic quarterly magazine straight to your door, you can become a member from as little as £3.50 per month.

Actions you can take