Beyond disclosure and towards enablement: A deep dive into Virgin Media’s new sustainability report

EXCLUSIVE: Virgin Media's latest sustainability report provides not only quantitative information for investors, customers and other stakeholders, but descriptive advice for other sustainability professionals. Here, edie speaks with the firm's head of sustainability Katie Buchanan to find out why and how her team are evolving their reporting practices.

Beyond disclosure and towards enablement: A deep dive into Virgin Media’s new sustainability report

Delaying reporting or strategy development in light of Covid-19 was “never a question” for Virgin Media

Virgin Media is widely regarded as an innovator in the world of sustainability reporting, having shifted to a digital-only format in 2010 and subsequently launched the world’s first 360 sustainability video. 2017 saw the firm publish a string of GIFs, infographics and social media posts in lieu of a hefty PDF and, in 2018, the report was football-themed in a drive to boost engagement against the backdrop of the FIFA World Cup.

This year, the report seemed, on the face of it, a little less ‘all-singing, all-dancing’, with no GIFs or puns in sight. But upon closer inspection, the report is significant for two main reasons: it is the last report against Virgin Media’s ‘5 in 5’ sustainability strategy, as new targets will need to be developed next year, and, for the first time, it includes pages dedicated to “team reflections”.

“Team reflections” are jointly written by members of the sustainability team and are designed not only to help employees, investors and customers understand where they faced challenges and took opportunities, but to provide advice for external sustainability, CSR and energy professionals. They are provided for each of the strategy’s five pillars: transforming lives, boosting business, better products, more inclusive and lower impact. Each of these pillars notably has buy-in from a member of the C-suite who sits outside of the direct sustainability team.

Speaking exclusively to edie about this facet of the report, Virgin Media’s head of sustainability Katie Buchanan said she has wanted to “evolve” her team’s approach from disclosure to internal engagement and, latterly, enablement, over her eight-year tenure.

We want to enable people across our business along with other sustainability practitioners to change the way they think about and deliver their own work – that’s how we’ll create lasting impact,” Buchanan summarised.

“We’re moving from enabling our people to enabling and encouraging other sustainability professionals to learn from our successes and the areas we still need to improve on. We hope they can use our reflections to apply them in the delivery of their own sustainability strategy or consider them as part of their own strategy-setting exercise.”

Snapshot of progress

In terms of these areas of success, the report highlights Virgin Media’s progress in decoupling emissions from growth. The business’ Scope 1 (direct) and Scope 2 (power-related) emissions were 42% lower in 2019 than in 2014, despite the business growing by 500,000 cable customers during the five-year period.

The report attributes this result to Virgin Media’s shift to 100% renewable electricity as part of The Climate Group’s RE100 initiative

Work to optimise van routes and to roll out new van driver monitoring software has also been undertaken; and Virgin Mediais replacing van deliveries of equipment with deliveries by post and customers installing their own hardware where possible.

Elsewhere, Virgin Media is on track to meet its vision of transforming the lives of one million disabled people. It partnered charity Scope to deliver against this aim and has since delivered disability and vulnerability training to 97% of its customer-facing workforce; appointed an executive sponsor of disability from the C-suite; launched a disability network and trained recruiters to minimise unconscious bias in advertising and interviewing processes.

Nonetheless, the business has failed to meet a handful of its ‘5 for 5’ goals, such as achieving a 50:50 gender parity target (the proportion of female staff company-wide stands at 28.3%). The report is upfront about this, displaying a large red cross mark, outlining reflections and next steps, and even stating: “being straight up: we’ve not hit the mark on this one”.

Going forward, Virgin Media will continue to adopt a streamlined approach to sustainability strategizing and will adopt a more ambitious climate strategy, Buchanan explained, in light of the UK’s net-zero target and the IPCC’s landmark research into global warming in line with the Paris Agreement. Buchanan said that the new targets will “put the business on a robust path to net-zero” but was unable to provide more details at present.

Streamlining and storytelling

Before developing ‘5 for 5’, which consists of just five goals and one strategic charity partnership, Virgin Media updated a swathe of 23 goals annually and was participating in 31 short-term charity partnerships.

Buchanan said the move to streamline the strategy served not only to make communications and reporting simpler, but to accelerate progress by giving the team the “focus and headroom to deliver a more significant impact”. “I’d do it again in a heartbeat,” she said.

Many businesses will be thinking about sustainability strategy updates at present, given that many goals and frameworks are due to expire in 2020. Major new strategies have been announced in recent weeks by Kimberly-Clark, Unilever, Natura & Co and L’Oreal, to name but a few.

As such, edie asked Buchanan for her advice on strategy development in what has been dubbed a decade of delivery – in which progress towards frameworks like the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and Paris Agreement hangs in the balance. Her mantra is simple: “do a few things really well and consistently” and engage others with the most material areas to the business.

“It’s important to find your consistency compass…whenever we lost our way over the [last] five years it’s because we didn’t have our ‘digital’ and ‘human’ principles at the heart of our work,” she explained, adding to the mounting support for purpose-led business.

“Right from the outset, these two principles quickly emerged as the constant thread that should run through everything we were planning to do. Once we focussed on these principles things always fell back into place.”

Sustainability professionals looking for their brand’s purpose should, in addition to conducting materiality assessments, think deeply about the principles which are “unique or fundamental” to their brand, building strategy pillars and targets, as well as communications, from this foundation.

Buchanan also provided insight on what it is like to launch a sustainability report and begin developing a new sustainability strategy in the context of the pandemic, which has seen the majority of businesses face logistical and/or financial challenges. In a poll of 101 edie readers at the start of the UK’s lockdown, 16% said their biggest challenge was reshaping engagement initiatives, while 44% cited disruptions to strategy delivery.

She said that delaying reporting or strategy development was “never a question” for Virgin Media, in spite of the shift to working-from-home and the fact that most peoples’ newsfeeds are now full of updates about vaccines, masks and social distancing.

“Working virtually hasn’t changed our ability to wrap-up our five-year strategy in a way that our people can particularly be proud of, but there have been a couple of adjustments that we’ve had to make,” she explained. “For example; our videos and GIFs have been filmed at home – rather than out and about – in order to keep people safe.”

Buchanan acknowledged that Virgin Media’s established approach to reporting likely helped it to ensure that the process was “not daunting or lengthy”, even in the context of Covid-19. The firm has an internal creative services team, receives executive-level support for the report preparation and promotion and works with external communications experts.

Sarah George

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