Cultivating a brighter future
Sustainability is more than a buzzword for Monash alum Helen Millicer - it’s a lesson rooted in childhood experience.
Growing up in suburban Camberwell during the 1970s drought, she saw firsthand how fragile nature can be.
“It was my job to bucket water from the laundry and shower to our garden,” Ms Millicer said. “I adored those trees, and the idea of losing them horrified me. It taught me that we have to take care of the world that sustains us.”
The realisation ignited a lifelong passion to protect the planet.
“So few people fully appreciate the horrific impacts of climate change,” she said. “It will dramatically impact what we can grow, where we can grow it, our infrastructure, how we function as a society.”
Shaping the future of sustainability
These days, Ms Millicer has played a key role in game-changing environmental reforms such as the Victorian Government’s container deposit scheme, plastic pollution reduction plan and Circular Economy Action Plan.
More recently, she co-led a Federal Government project to revolutionise Australia’s approach to sustainability. “This will fundamentally change what we’re calling the ‘eco-design’ of products for a circular, low-emissions future,” she said.
In June Australia’s environment ministers reached a historic agreement, announcing strict mandatory packaging design standards and targets that make manufacturers responsible for reducing, reusing and recycling packaging.
“Our work will continue to be applied across different product streams, including plastics, electrical goods, textiles and buildings,” Ms Millicer said.
Driving circular solutions
Last month Ms Millicer attended the World Circular Economy Forum in Helsinki to discuss bold plans to drive circularity and a low-emissions future. “Far-reaching reforms to product and packaging are being drafted for the European Parliament, which closely align with the work we have done for the Australian Government,” she said.
While in Europe, she also met with the lead negotiator for the Global Plastics Treaty.
“Plastics are a fundamental part of life, but the way we produce and manage them has to improve,” said Ms Millicer, who is currently in the process of helping make that a reality.
“I’m working with the Australian Food and Grocery Council on a stewardship scheme for soft plastic packaging that’s going to be a very important initiative for Australia.”
Becoming an agent of change
The late 1990s marked a turning point in Ms Millicer’s career. “I’d been working in the arts industry for a few years, but I didn’t want to do that anymore,” she said.
“I knew I needed to prove my credentials to work in a new field, so I enrolled in a Postgraduate Diploma in Business Management at Monash.”
The experience proved both beneficial and galvanising. “During my studies, I saw the way we think about business is based on the exploitation of resources - we place short-term profit over long-term sustainability,” she said.
Armed with her diploma, and determined to make a difference, she set about managing national sustainability programs for industry and government including Plastics and Chemicals Industries Association and Sustainability Victoria.
Passion projects with a purpose
In 2012, wanting to contribute to strategic decisions on a larger scale, Ms Millicer decided it was time to branch out on her own. And One Planet Consulting was born.
The move gave her the freedom to join boards and work on projects that would have real impact at scale. “I see myself as a systems changer. I'd done plenty of successful hands-on delivery, and I was looking for systemic change,” she said.
“We’ve only got one planet, and yet we are in a competitive race towards some absurd end. I work to redesign our systems and way of thinking and I know we can do that. We have to.”
The missing piece
When bushfires raged across the country in 2019 and 2020, Australians got a terrifying glimpse into the catastrophic effects of climate change. For Ms Millicer and colleague Gail Greatorex, it was a call to arms.
“We realised no one was working with associations to help them and their members tackle climate change,” she said.
“Associations can play a really important role in helping members reduce emissions and climate risk - they are the missing piece in the puzzle to embed and bring about change quickly.”
"There is nothing more exhilarating than being part of the change"
The pair launched not-for-profit initiative ClimateWise Associations – a self-help hub of free resources with a rating tool to enable associations to improve and measure services for members on climate actions.
They are now seeking funding partners to take the initiative to the next level.
“We want to recruit staff to help do outreach and engagements with associations and their members,” she said.
“I believe this is a project that will be supported strongly by government and key industry associations.”
Ms Millicer’s advice for anyone considering a career in sustainability is simple: just do it.
“Yes, it can be complex and disheartening at times, but being surrounded by expert people who share your goals and deliver results is so empowering and positive,” she said.
“There is nothing more exhilarating than being part of the change.”