Dial S for sustainability

A sound sustainable development strategy takes time and effort to integrate.EBM looks at how telecoms company BT managed

For a company like BT, with 100,000 staff and numerous offices around the country, creating a sustainable development strategy is not an easy prospect. The company must be doing something right however, as it recently picked up a coveted Queen’s Award for Enterprise in the sustainable development category, for its corporate social responsibility (CSR) work.

Although the environmental programme began 10 years ago, it has only been in the past two years that it has become a coherent strategy. Achieving a joined-up programme is often the step that discourages companies. With different departments including procurement, group communications, and quality all having an impact on CSR, it can be hard to know where to start.

BT has conquered this problem by ensuring that each part of the organisation is aware of its role within the whole. At operational level, each section has its own targets, some of which are related to sustainable development. An external executive committee made up of senior management oversees and takes stock of the overall sustainable development objectives, and ensures that each division is on track.

Chris Tuppen, BT’s head of sustainable development and corporate accountability, describes the company’s approach as an "evolution from protectors, to builders, to innovators." Protectors are those that work on risk management issues; builders try to capitalise on the good work the company is doing as a result of effective risk management, internally and externally; and innovators use the expertise from this work to create new business opportunities for the company.

Integrating the strategy
The company also has a CSR house check process that looks at BT’s commercial programmes and asks what the

critical commercial objectives of each are. A triple bottom line impact analysis is done to help identify ways in which CSR issues can help deliver the commercial targets.

"The tendency is that you end up looking at the housekeeping but forget the big things that the company is doing," says Tuppen. "We have tried to avoid that."

Integrating sustainable development into mainstream business operation has been a challenge. For a start, the board had to be convinced — no easy task considering that10 years ago the term CSR was barely talked about.

BT holds regular polls to check its performance levels, and recently looked into what influences customer satisfaction. Results showed that product quality, customer interaction, price, value for money, and reputation all played a part.

When "reputation" was analysed further, BT found that CSR issues influenced 25-33% of customers. For every 1% of people that see the company as environmentally responsible, satisfaction rises by 0.1%. Reverse this and satisfaction goes down by 10%. This struck a chord with the Board, Tuppen says: "The impact of a 10% drop in customer satisfaction would be huge," says Tuppen. "So sustainable development began to be seen as a way of cutting dissatisfaction, driving up customer loyalty and ultimately protecting market share."

This, allied to cost savings derived from the environmental programme — over £600m to date — presented a powerful case for sustainable development.

The figures may stack up in the boardroom, but how do you tell the good news to stakeholders? When an environmental report lands on a desk, it’s usually not long before it’s flying across the room towards the wastepaper basket. Tuppen is aware of this — hence the paper saving, online sustainable development report produced by his team for BT.

All the information is verified, not only by internal BT auditors but also by external auditors, Lloyds Quality Assurance. This seems like a lot of work, but Tuppen says it is essential, especially as the investment community is becoming more interested in sustainable development. "There has been a fundamental shift in investor relations," he says. "The level of engagement with the City — primarily with SRI analysts, although not exclusively — is much higher than five years ago. Ten years ago it was non-existent."

It’s not a perfect science, but Tuppen feels that the work that he, his team and the organisation have done can only serve to make BT a more competitive business in the future — and hopefully lead to many more awards.



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