BBC Worldwide, the corporation's commercial arm, has taken its environmental impacts seriously for over a decade. And its headquarters and ethical policy are impressive. But, as Tom Idle hears, there's still room for improvement
At the time of writing, Mark Thompson, the BBC’s director-general is toying with the idea of the part-privatisation of the corporation’s lucrative commercial arm, BBC Worldwide, as part of a wide-ranging review. “One of the things we should look at is whether 100% ownership of Worldwide is essential going forward,” he said. If it happens, it would be the first major privatisation in years and comes on the back of pressure for the BBC to share the benefits of its guaranteed licence fee.
Whatever happens, there’s no denying that BBC Worldwide is an attractive proposition; it turns over £1B a year, employs 2,000 staff and sells BBC-branded magazines, toys and DVDs, associated with the likes of Top Gear, Doctor Who and Teletubbies. Its home, at the Media Centre at the BBC’s White City estate in west London, is also home to the television studios for Panorama, The One Show and Watchdog. And it’s an excitingly creative environment that masks the big-business nature of the company, which is detached from the public-service division. It also has a big environmental impact, but one that it is making every effort to reduce, as I found out by meeting David Halford, the company’s head of ethical sourcing and environment policy.
BBC Worldwide began its environmental journey in 1994, when its managing director of the magazines division – a “hippy”, according to David – demanded the environment was taken into consideration across the business. It publishes more than 30 magazines and uses 40 to 50,000 tonnes of paper a year in the process, so understandably, the impact of its paper consumption was the first issue to be addressed.
The company became a founding member of the WWF’s Forest Trade Network (FTN) in 1995 and, four years later, BBC Worldwide became the first publisher in the world to publish a magazine on Forest Stewardship Council (FSC)-certified paper. That magazine was Worldlife, a rather specialist title with a small circulation compared with the other BBC titles and the real goal was to widen the scope of FSC paper use to include all magazines in the company. “At the time we became founding members of the FTN, there was no FSC paper, so we took to lobbying suppliers for it,” says David.
In 2000, the company’s biggest-selling magazine, Radio Times, carried the FSC for the first time and today all of the magazines are printed on the sustainably-sourced paper.
And it was the same journey for the company’s book division. In 2004, it published the world’s first book to carry the FSC mark and when the company bought Lonely Planet in 2007, it made sure all its books moved to FSC, despite being printed in China. “We are doing it because it’s the right thing to do,” says David.
As a publisher, waste comes with the territory, especially if you print twice as many magazines as you sell, as BBC Worldwide does. Despite placing a greater emphasis on encouraging readers to take out subscriptions, there is no getting away from the fact that a lot of magazines go unsold, unread and thrown in the bin.
One hundred per cent of all of the BBC’s unsold magazines are sent to recycling companies such as SCA in Aylesford, Kent, which uses the near-virgin fibres of the magazine stock to manufacture paper it sells for newspaper print.
Post-consumer waste is being dealt with in a campaign with Defra to try to recover 70% of magazine waste by 2013. “We are engaging with the waste chain, support information campaigns and giving our readers information in the magazine,” explains David. “We also use an oxy-biodegradable wrap to distribute the magazines in the post to subscribers. We make no claims about it, though, and we are working with Greenpeace to develop something better.”
What about the fashion for wrapping magazines in fancy plastic packaging on the shelves, I ask David. Isn’t that just adding to the waste problem? “Well, they do hold supplements and free gifts. And we’ve got to sell the magazines – otherwise there’s no point.”
The business has been taking its environmental impacts seriously for more than ten years. And because it sells a lot of toys, either as standalone products or as freebies given away with children’s magazines, it is also very proud of its strict ethical sourcing policy ensuring a high standard of trade practices among its suppliers and manufacturing partners, many of which are in China and India.
Its environmental policy is now being properly formulated also, following some work with Arup that culminated in the establishment of 150 action points. Its environmental management work will also be officially recognised with ISO 14001 accreditation, due next Spring. “ISO 14001 won’t mean we are a green company,” warns David. “But we thought we ought to do it if we are taking it seriously.”
In the office, staff are banned from using polystyrene or plastic cups; it’s china or beakers instead. No one is allowed a personal bin under their desk; instead they are encouraged to walk to the communal recycling bins dotted around the office. Pull-print machines have replaced desktop printers to make sure people only print what they need. Any documents not activated at the printer are auto-deleted after 24 hours.
The firm’s headquarters, the Media Centre, opened in 2004 and it is an environmental story in its own right, with a BREEAM ‘excellent’ standard for both design and construction.
A rainwater harvesting system collects and filters rainwater that falls on the roof and is recycled for use in the toilets, saving three million litres of water a year.
The telephones ‘power down’ between 7pm and 7am, Monday to Friday, and computer screens switch to energy-saving mode if inactive for more than 15 minutes. The building’s BMS ensures heating is linked to occupied hours, and cooling is provided by passive ventilation, energy-efficient chilled beams and fresh-air shutters. Outside, Brise Soliel (solar shading panels) control the heat gain created by the large windows. And underneath the building are just 65 parking spaces, each one costing £5 a day to use.
“When we introduced paying for parking, the status aspect of the parking space vanished overnight,” says David, who is using the funds generated to pay for carbon offsetting projects.
Last year, the company started working with ERM to carbon-footprint the company, beginning with the magazines division. As the fourth biggest UK publisher, it wasn’t an easy job. Aided by the carbon calculator on the Periodical Publishers’ Association website, the project measured the carbon emitted from the various aspects of the print process. It highlighted that the energy needed to make the paper the magazines are printed on, is by far the biggest impact. It has been an interesting project for BBC Worldwide, which plans to roll out a footprinting assessment of the rest of the company.
Whatever happens to BBCWorldwide – and criticism of the BBC Trust from commercial rivals and senior politicians may yet see the firm broken up and sold off – the corporate responsibility is not likely to be an issue for any future investor.
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