It’s Earth Day and I am speaking at Bentley Time Leadership Forum on the topic of Accountable Leadership and the business of healing our world.
This is the first time I’ve spoken explicitly on the topic of Virgin and Accountability and it coincides nicely with the publication of Virgin Group’s Corporate Sustainability and Social Responsibility Report.
In case you are not in Waltham today, here are the highlights of my talk. I’m looking forward to some healthy debate on the topic.
Big Caveat… I am not a sustainability expert (and was not intimately involved in writing the Virgin report), so I am attacking this from more of a branding/marketing angle. If you are looking to discuss carbon footprint, greenhouse gasses and the benefits of local vs. global sourcing… you may want to move on.
If you are curious about what guides Virgin’s approach and could be applicable to other brands looking to build, beef up or benchmark their efforts in this area of “green,” please read on.
Here are the four key points of my presentation:
1. Business as a Force for Good
Can business really be a force for good?
At Virgin we believe the answer is “yes” but only if the positive actions are positive for the consumer and good for the business.
We believe that accountability, working towards a sustainable future, should not be a part time charitable activity.
We think for it to really work it has to be fundamental to our business strategy.
And since our business is a lifestyle brand that is about enjoyment across many sectors. We believe we must aim for a vision where enjoying a healthy, fulfilling lifestyle works towards as a goal of also minimizing negative impact.
Sustainable living is often portrayed as a life of sacrifice and compromise as opposed to the choice and freedom we currently enjoy.
Not surprisingly, many people are not motivated by this vision.
Our aim is to provide products and services that are desirable, easy to use, fun, good value AND are as responsibly produced and as sustainable as possible.
So our customers can enjoy themselves but at the same time know that Virgin is doing the best to act responsibly on their behalf.
We believe Enlightened Capitalism is not an oxymoron.
2. Stay on Brand
Virgin’s core promise is defined internally as “Consumer Champion”.
Our belief that consumer’s deserve a better option is what ties together businesses as disparate as telecommunications, financial services and aviation.
It’s what led Richard to start a music business straight out of University with no experience in this field and then decide to start an airline with even less.
Because he felt that options for purchasing music at the time were too dull and not about community and that the airline options took all the control away from the consumer.
And as a consumer champion, we’ve decided that part of our responsibility is also to take care of people and the planet.
But we’ve also determined that for our CSR efforts to be most effective they need to adhere to the spirit and values of our brand.
For Virgin that means being slightly irreverent, making things fun, being innovative and shaking things up.
We’re not suggesting this is right for every brand, but it’s authentic to us and we believe authenticity is extremely important in CSR (especially with 20 something consumers who quickly reject anything that feels inauthentic or forced).
So when we want to raise awareness for the issue of homeless youth (an issue that effects over 2 million young people in America) we do it with a decidedly Virgin twist.
One example is the Virgin Music Festival last August which was sponsored by Virgin Mobile and featured great headliner bands like Weezer, Public Enemy and Blink 182.
Given the mood of the country last summer (high unemployment, credit crunch, Swine Flu etc.) we decide to brighten things up by putting on our normally paid music festival for free.
The first batch of tickets went “On Free” through Ticketmaster. After those were “Freed Out” (sold out) 2,000 tickets we used for the Free.I.P program.
The way to become a Free. I.P was to access the volunteer events through the Festival website and do 13 hours of community service to get tickets to attend.
It was a successful brand and media event for us (with the help of great sponsors and bloggers) but most importantly it also did a lot to raise awareness and aid for homeless youth: 30,000 hours of community service donated, $80K raised, over 7000 hygiene kits created for kids on the street, 1000 pairs of shoes donated by Converse, and all Virgin Mobile Lounge furniture on site was donated to the Sasha Bruce House, a shelter for unaccompanied homeless youth in DC.
So this kind of event which was a sun soaked, beer soaked party Virgin style, also helped us do some good for an important cause.
3. Practice, Don’t Preach
Another fundamental principle is to use our products themselves, whenever possible, for good.
A few examples: Virgin Media UK provides free media access for elderly people in low income housing, Virgin Balloon flights recycles the used balloons into bags and jackets,Virgin America donates tickets to non-profits for fundraising and Virgin Atlantic delivered crucial shelter boxes and needed supplies to Haiti in the wake of that devastating earthquake.
There are many more examples in the Sustainability Report of businesses in each sector trying to use their assets and expertise for good.
Now, we’re definitely not perfect and still have a long way to go towards our vision of a more sustainable, and enjoyable, future- but we’ve taken the time to do an audit of what’s working and what still needs to be improved and we know what work we have cut out for us and are committed to trying our best.
Yeah, but….some of you may be thinking, how can Virgin talk about social responsibility- they own Airlines and other businesses that are bad for the environment?
You are right. And we’ve had that debate internally. Should we try to divest ourselves of these businesses?
We know that air travel has a negative impact on the environment. We also know that there are a lot of good things that happen when people fly. It stimulates business, it helps us get to know and understand different cultures, it promotes global understanding and stimulates bonds of friendship and support around the world.
We also know that if we were to pull out of this industry, someone else would swoop in and take over our routes and we can’t be sure how responsible they will be.
So we’ve decided to stay at the table and try to improve things like developing and testing a more sustainable bio fuel, pledging to re-invest profits from the transport businesses through the Clinton Global Initiative and creating Virgin Green Fund- a separate Virgin company making investments in companies in technology or process that reduces carbon emissions, increases the efficient use of energy, water or natural resources.
The last principle is a recognition that the issues facing the world are complex, and no single organization or corporation will be successful if they try and tackle the issues on their own. It’s this belief that we are stronger together than individually that led us to name our charitable arm Virgin Unite.
Virgin Unite launched it in 2004 to unite people to tackle tough social and environmental problems in an entrepreneurial way.
The Virgin Group and Richard Branson fund 100% of the overheads so all the money raised can go directly to front line projects and grassroots partners.
If you want to learn more about Virgin Unite and perhaps get involved in one of our programs, visit http://www.VirginUnite.com.
One of the recent Unite initiatives that we are very excited about is the formation of the Elders which is the brainchild of Richard Branson and musician Peter Gabriel.
The Elders focuses on using wisdom and moral courage from a group of respected leaders who have no other agenda than that of humanity to tackle some of the toughest problems in the world.
It involves a group of 8 elders including Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Nelson Mandela, Kofi Annan and former president Jimmy Carter among others.
As I mentioned, I am not an expert on sustainability. But I do believe that brands have a critical role to play in raising awareness, spurring action and hopefully advancing the debate around business as a force for good and “making money like there is a tomorrow”.
What’s your twist?
What brand approaches to Corporate Social Responsibility do you admire?