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Richard Sandbrook

Founding member of Friends of the Earth and champion of sustainable development

John Richard Sandbrook, environmentalist: born Bath 13 August 1946; Managing Director, Friends of the Earth UK 1974-76; Director of the Non-Governmental and Marine Programme, International Institute for Environment and Development 1976-80, Vice-President for Administration 1980-83, Vice-President for Policy 1983-86, Executive Director (Europe) 1986-89, Executive Director 1989-99; OBE 1990; Treasurer and Vice-Chairman, Plantlife 2002-05, Acting Chief Executive 2005; married 1970 Mary Wray (two sons); died London 11 December 2005.

Richard Sandbrook was a biologist and accountant who had a profound influence on the green movement and the world of international development. As a founding member of Friends of the Earth UK, he organised protests, including one outside Downing Street, and campaigned against waste and pollution. But he was to transform himself from a conventional ecological rebel into a leading light behind the idea of sustainable development.

As the years went by his behind-the-scenes influence grew, and under his inspiring leadership the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) became a workshop for many of the most creative thinkers in the field.

Sandbrook was an unconventional figure. His impish and wiry appearance suited his mischievous, nervy and at times irascible character. Even late in his career, when he was plainly a distinguished figure, he had no need for airs or graces. Everyone who mattered knew he had the ear of people ranging from the heavyweights in environment and development ministries to the Prince of Wales.

Years before it was fashionable to talk of green capitalism, Sandbrook was gaining a sympathetic hearing in the boardrooms of major companies, providing practical advice and cajoling them into improving their ways. He had little time for ideology, and became increasingly exasperated by the green fundamentalists who refused to acknowledge that the private sector could be a force for the good.

Richard Sandbrook was born in Bath in 1946, the son of a naval officer. He attended Dauntsey's School and took a degree in biology at the University of East Anglia, where he became the first sabbatical president of the students' union. Soon after he left university, he co-founded Friends of the Earth UK, but, instead of pursuing a career in science, he spent five years as an accountant with Arthur Andersen & Co. Although he abandoned accountancy, this was to prove time well spent: later he was able to engage with the business world in a way few environmentalists could. In 1974 he became managing director of Friends of the Earth, stayed just long enough to turn it into a viable and vibrant pressure group, then left to become one of Barbara Ward's "bright young men".

Barbara Ward (Baroness Jackson of Lodsworth) was a development economist who understood that poverty alleviation and good environmental stewardship went hand in hand. Immensely well connected, she advised prime ministers and the Pope, and established the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) in London in 1973. She adored Sandbrook, and the feelings were mutual. Although it was to be over a decade before he became executive director of IIED, his influence permeated almost every significant thing the institution did.

IIED was the first organisation to take the World Bank to task for its poor environmental record. Later, it played a key role in the drafting of Our Common Future, the 1987 report of the World Commission on Environment and Development. Popularly known as the Bruntland report, this was the nearest thing at the time to a handbook on sustainable development. In the wake of Band Aid, IIED helped Bob Geldof work out how to spend the project money, and throughout the 1980s Sandbrook and his colleagues explored how development aid could be delivered more effectively to benefit both the poor and the environment. It was for his services to the UK Overseas Development Administration that Sandbrook was appointed OBE in 1990.

Till now, IIED had been quietly antipathetic to big business. This began to change, as Sandbrook, in particular, realised the private sector had a key role to play in tackling problems facing the developing world. A conversation at the 1992 Rio Earth Summit with the world's largest paper-mill owner eventually led to an in-depth study of the environmental and social impact of the paper industry. This was the first time anyone had corralled scientists and corporations in a concerted attempt to understand an international industry. Many greens were outraged with the resulting report - Towards a Sustainable Paper Cycle, published in 1996 by IIED and the World Business Council for Sustainable Development - whose findings suggested that plantation forests, and even chlorine bleach, were not necessarily the enemies of sound development.

There was less public, but more private, controversy for Sandbrook when he was project coordinator for a similar analysis, this time of the mining industry. Once again, he was vilified by some of the more fundamentalist green groups, but the project was a considerable success, and led, among other things, to the setting up of the International Council on Mining and Metals. Partly as a result, this rugged and difficult industry is now making a concerted effort to improve its social and environmental performance.

Speaking to an industry lunch at the London Hilton, Sandbrook admitted that he was aware that the kind of green thinking which informed the movement he loved had been flawed in some ways. He said he thought modesty ought to dictate that the greens admit as much. But he did not press the point in public: he knew that industry was generally less sensitive to criticism than the movement he had grown up in. And he knew that his value lay in having an open door to both sides of any dispute.

It was one of Sandbrook's great attributes that he could bring together disparate groups of people - from mining companies to conservationists, developing country governments to human rights groups - and foster a constructive dialogue. He believed that, to make a difference, people and organisations had to work with others with whom they were not naturally comfortable.

Sandbrook's administrative skills, like his manner of dress, were at times shambolic. A member of staff at IIED once commented: "Richard is so goddamned nice you can't dislike him, but the way he runs this place we should." But his generous nature and his ability to laugh at his own foibles meant that he was held in great affection almost everywhere he went - not that this deterred him from being unnervingly frank. He was a consummate matchmaker, whether it involved setting up a lunch to enable the Prince of Wales to meet the Dalai Lama, thus saving the UK government from getting into a diplomatic squabble with China, or forging links between big business, governments and charities.

After Sandbrook left IIED in 1999, he helped to establish the sort of creative partnerships he believed were necessary if poverty and environmental decay were to be successfully tackled. One of these, a spin-off from the Johannesburg Earth Summit in 2002, was a United Nations project, Growing Sustainable Business. This aims to get businesses to invest in development projects both for their own good and that of the poor. Another project which Sandbrook chaired, Water and Sanitation for the Urban Poor, has brought together Thames Water, WaterAid, WWF, Care International and others in a scheme which hopes to deliver clean water and sanitation to 10 million people over five years. Incremental change, in Sandbrook's view, was always better than none at all.

For much of his career, Sandbrook's opinion and advice was sought by senior figures in government, especially in the Overseas Development Administration and its successor, the Department for International Development. He also advised various industries, and performed a similar service for the Prince of Wales, acting in tandem with the Prince's more overtly environmental adviser, Jonathon Porritt. He was a founding trustee of Forum for the Future and adviser to Save the Children. He always maintained his links with Friends of the Earth.

Despite his hectic travel schedule, Richard Sandbrook found time for his family and friends; for fly-fishing and sailing; for tending a much-loved garden and recounting his latest escapades over a beer in The Hand in Hand, near his Wimbledon home. Whether it was dancing with Lady Diana in the back of a royal flight to Brazil; or getting mugged in a hotel garden in Nairobi while enjoying a late-night cigarette; or being apprehended for attempting to smuggle a chain of miniature whiskies, strung together and suspended inside his trouser leg, into alcohol-free Sudan - these were just the sort of things you expected to happen to him.

He had an intense love of plants. Shortly before he died, he recalled picking an orchid, a vetch and a saxifrage for the school matron when he was eight or nine years old - "because I loved her, and she loved me". The head of the school admonished him the following day, making plain that it was better to conserve plants in situ than pluck them from the ground. This incident had a lasting impact on the young Sandbrook, engendering a respect for both science and conservation.

It was something he retained all his life, and in his latter years his love of nature, nurtured as a schoolboy, led him into two of his most pleasurable and rewarding associations. From 2002 until earlier this year he was Vice-Chairman and Treasurer of the conservation charity Plantlife, and recently its acting chief executive. From 1999 to 2003 he was also a non-executive director of the Eden Project in Cornwall, and he did much to shape its development.

Richard Sandbrook was a social entrepreneur of the first order. He was a brilliant speaker, but was too busy getting things done to bother putting pen to paper in any significant way. A pity. Had he lived, he might have written the best-informed and most insightful history of the environmental movement, and its faltering evolution toward the difficult idea of sustainable development, as seen from the crow's nest. It would certainly have been a very sparky read.

Charlie Pye-Smith and Richard D. North