How businesses can deliver meaningful action on social sustainability in 2021

The pandemic, the Black Lives Matters movement, and other events that took place last year, have shone a spotlight on how organisations have or have not responded and supported their people and customers when they needed them the most. I’m sure, like me, you can recall the examples of where businesses and individuals have exceeded your expectations and warmed your heart, along with the examples that simply made you put your head in your hands.

If one thing is clear, it’s that businesses can no longer hide behind ‘vision’ statements and tokenistic gestures. The old adage is truer than ever before; actions speak louder than words.  That’s why the companies that had an impact in 2020 were the ones that stepped up in authentic, credible and timely way.

As sustainability professionals, we’ve probably all had similar conversations with our senior leaders about what emergency support we can provide for our people and the communities we serve. We’ve been expected to juggle this while delivering our existing technical and complex plans. What’s clear is that we play an increasingly critical role in helping companies bring their purpose to life – ensuring it is relevant, inspiring and authentic, and importantly, that it resonates with people and customers.

I believe more than ever before, that we need to build new capabilities and coalitions. My view is that on their own, governments, social services and charitable organisations do not have the capabilities and resources to solve today’s biggest social challenges. We must continue to work together, building smart partnerships which create unique combinations of expertise that genuinely challenge the causes of the most pertinent social and environmental challenges we face. Brands provide an incredible platform for change, innovative solutions and the ability to mobilise millions of people which we have seen this year, and I’m sure 2021 will see more partnerships in action.

However, with the last 10 months presenting a constant balancing act of delivering immediate short-term impact while keeping ambitious long-term plans on track, I am sure that many of us feel a bit tired, overwhelmed, and unsure of what this year will bring.

That’s why I have found myself going back to basics; reviewing customer insight data and having the old Virgin Group notion of if ‘your products could talk what would they say’ at the forefront of my mind. It means our sustainability plan remains focussed and is clearly aligned to our business and the role we play in people’s lives.

At Virgin Media, we’ve always had clear input from our customers which has guided our work. Over time, I’ve learnt to sharpen that focus and to do a few things really well. That’s why five years ago we made the decision to set 5 goals for a 5 year period, making social change (or our ‘digital for good’ activity) the thing we wanted to elevate. That’s not to say our environmental activity hasn’t been ambitious or important, it continues to be so, but we knew from insight that our big focus should be on impacting society through our brand and connectivity.

Demanding more for disabled people

We’ve just reached the end of our five-year partnership with the disability equality charity, Scope. Our relationship with Scope was not the usual corporate-charity fundraising model. From its conception, our partnership was about two organisations coming together to lead the charge on creating equality for disabled people.

To achieve this, we focused on disability unemployment – an issue which affects huge numbers of disabled people.

We have expertise in connectivity that lends itself to addressing this issue – where having a job unlocks opportunities and independence for disabled people.

Being straight-up, when we started working with Scope in 2015, we didn’t truly appreciate the huge task that lay ahead. But creating social change doesn’t happen overnight.

As well as implementing a programme to support a million disabled people with the skills and confidence to get and stay in work, we also reviewed how well we were supporting disabled people – from recruitment and employment, to customer service and the products and services we sell.

It was clear from the outset we had a lot of work to do. My team and I have worked relentlessly with teams across our businesses so we can begin to embed disability into our people and customer experiences. To change the system you have to understand how to create change in what can be a complex organisation, along with knowing who to co-create ideas with and, if necessary, be brave and bold to go out of the system to get the job done! 

We gained the backing of our Board, with our Chief Operating Officer, Jeff Dodds, championing disability equality, helping to push through lasting changes across our business for disabled employees and customers.

This has included everything from rolling-out dedicated disability and vulnerability training to 8,500 frontline people, streamlining our workplace adjustments process, and creating more inclusive products and services.

We’re not perfect and we still have a long way to go to becoming a fully inclusive company, but we’re making positive progress and are sharing our learnings with others as we go.

Taking the lead

It’s not easy to take a step back and evaluate the work you’re doing to see if it’s creating significant change. But it is so important. We did this halfway through our partnership with Scope when we realised our initial programme wasn’t working and we decided to change course. It was a tough moment, but it was the right decision and paid off.

I come back to our position as sustainability professionals: we have a ‘helicopter’ view of everything that takes place in our business and the outside world. We need to use this position to help our organisations navigate and respond to social issues and emerging trends, and where it aligns with their purpose, help them to take a leadership position, too. Following the events of 2020, we have to do this with more energy and rigour than ever before.

Katie Buchanan is Head of Sustainability at Virgin Media and is shortlisted for edie’s Sustainability Leader of the Year

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