Bigger and better

Just two years since its launch Virgin Media has already become the largest of the Virgin companies, with a turnover in the billions. But, as Tom Idle discovers, the TV, internet and phone firm has taken its environmental responsibilities seriously from the start - and is determined to a stay on top of its impacts

Almost ten million of us are plugged into the Virgin Media world. Whether we connect to the fibre optic cables for our home broadband, use its network to make mobile phone calls or enjoy the home TV and phone packages, we are responsible for the business ballooning in size since it launched in 2007. It is now the biggest of Richard Branson’s companies in the Virgin family, last year turning over £3.8B.

The company’s corporate responsibility programme has been in place since day one. Last year’s first sustainability report set out its promises: to talk to stakeholders, to look after its people and customers, to manage its environmental impacts, to understand the community it sits within, and to measure its performance.

OK, so it’s all basic stuff and because 2008 was the firm’s first year of reporting, there was no real baseline. But Virgin Media has done its homework. It understands corporate responsibility (CR) and has modelled itself to ensure CR governance issues are tackled properly. “With an eye firmly set on our core strategic objectives, our CR strategy is straightforward,” admits chief executive, Neil Berkett. “I have personally chaired each of our CR committee meetings over the course of last year and have been encouraged by the analysis provided by our CR champions and the quality of debate that has generated.”

So, what has been achieved? In terms of impact reduction, the company has created a baseline for its greenhouse gas emissions – taking data from 2007 and 2008 and averaging it. Its yearly, scope 1 and 2 internal, emissions stand at 307, 779 tonnes of CO2 equivalent. The aim is to reduce this by 15% by 2015. So far, the firm has improved data centre efficiency, consolidated a number of sites, carried out energy assessments with the Carbon Trust, trialled free air cooling and reduced air conditioning impacts by 20%.

A staff awareness campaign has also tried to encourage people to switch things off in the office and to use video conferencing equipment more instead of travelling.

This year, even more sites will be consolidated, 1,300 staff cars will be replaced with more efficient models and smart meters will be installed (no doubt to prepare for next year’s Carbon Reduction Commitment legislation).

Interestingly, Virgin Media “doesn’t see value in attempting to ‘offset’ the emissions we can’t eliminate”. Instead, the focus is on investing in more “innovative” activities – namely fighting deforestation, supporting home energy efficiency, and considering how fibre optic cable technology can help to create low-carbon lifestyles.

Virgin Media’s eco-homes project is a partnership with the Sustainable Energy Research Group at the University of Southampton. Five homes, equipped with Virgin’s technology, are being tracked in terms of energy usage and thermal comfort. During the trial, the team hopes to develop an interactive touch-screen display that will offer information on energy consumption for each household. Virgin Media also wants to look at new ways of harnessing the media infrastructure that exists in houses (PCs, TVs, etc) to communicate energy consumption info.

In fact, Virgin’s technology – in particular, its fibre optic cables – has huge potential to support a low-carbon economy – from digital downloads replacing DVDs and CDs, to video conferences replacing face-to-face meetings, “it’s all powerful stuff,” says the company.

Because of the nature of Virgin Media’s business, its energy consumption will continue to creep up as it gains more customers, attracted by fast broadband and TV-mobile-phone-internet bundles. But the tools it has developed, and set out in its latest easy-on-the-eye sustainability report, will ensure it stays on top of its environmental impacts, while hopefully using its broad reach to engage with customers and affect real behaviour change.

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