In the latest edition of our Flex Life series, we spoke to founder and strategic design consultant Elisabeth (Lilli) Graf about finding your purpose in sustainability and the many benefits of freelance work.
When did you start freelancing in sustainability?
I began exploring freelancing in 2019 when I adopted a four-day work week. This allowed me one day each week to focus on running workshops and training sessions centred around design and social innovation. The initial prototyping phase was invaluable; it enabled me to test my interest in freelancing and to build a professional network. As demand for my services increased, I decided to quit my full-time job. Initially, my focus was on using strategic design to answer the question, 'Where do you start with sustainability?' Realising that this question was too broad, I decided to specialise and found that my true passion lies in climate adaptation and resilience.
Where are you based and where do you work now?
I'm currently based in Verona, Italy, having relocated from London during the pandemic. I predominantly work remotely, serving clients worldwide. My area of expertise is in an emerging field; many organisations are just starting to recognise their vulnerability to climate risks. Consequently, most of my work involves clients abroad, as awareness in Italy remains relatively low.
What issues are you most passionate about tackling?
My work revolves around one central question: How can we prepare for, and become resilient to, the consequences of the climate crisis? I address this in two ways. First, I consult with organisations to build climate resilience and to avoid costly service disruptions due to climate breakdown. Second, I founded IMMA Collective, a community for freelancers focused on social and climate impact. Freelancing enhances your resilience and adaptability, as it gives you control over when, how, and where you work, as well as which projects you take on. Just as a single tree is vulnerable to the elements, freelancers are stronger when connected. Our collective, much like a forest, enhances individual resilience through its interconnected roots.
How are you using your strengths and skills to change the world?
One of my core strengths is designing new services from scratch with a focus on prevention. Over years I've worked with governments and banks to develop new value propositions that promote healthier lifestyles and better long-term financial decisions. The challenge in prevention-focused design is making something attractive that people may not initially want but truly need. This especially applies to the climate crisis. We often neglect preparations for extreme weather events, fail to set aside money for potential financial shocks, and don't have Plan B's for our supply chains. To address these issues, I use behavioural and strategic design to co-create innovative solutions.
What brings you the most joy in having a flexible career?
Working for myself has been incredibly empowering. It allows me to align my work with my values and shape my own work environment. For the past two years, I've been fortunate to have more work than I can handle, which has allowed me to define what 'enough' means to me. I've even been able to take sabbaticals to focus on passion projects like IMMA Collective and to spend quality time with family and friends—luxuries I wouldn't have had if I were still working for a company.
What are the biggest challenges when it comes to freelancing in sustainability?
My expertise is in the emerging field of climate adaptation, which currently receives limited funding. In fact, less than 10% of all climate-related funding is allocated to adaptation efforts. Much of my work centres on building awareness and highlighting the value that strategic design can bring to this space. While constructing more resilient infrastructures like seawalls and restoring wetlands are important, they're not enough. We also need solutions that encourage behaviour change, helping communities and organisations better prepare for extreme weather events and other climate-related impacts
What's your advice for someone considering freelancing?
I've actually created a free quiz and regularly share articles and resources with aspiring freelancers through IMMA Collective. But if I were to give one piece of advice, it would be to start having conversations. Talk to potential clients and other freelancers. Get out of your head and take that first step, even if it’s just striking up a conversation and asking questions.