As the angry queue of travellers looped around the British Library before shuffling along the Euston Road and into St. Pancras station in the run-up to Christmas, the scenes defied the picture of calm I experienced just weeks before.

I was at the London offices of Eurostar to meet the man in charge of a business that, since 1994, has been responsible for transforming the way we travel to the Continent. Since my meeting with the chief executive, Nicolas Petrovic, icy tracks, cancellations, delays and disgruntled travellers eager to make it out of the UK for their winter skiing breaks in the Alps, have sent the company into a spin. It is a PR disaster that won’t aid the company’s ambitious growth plans as it looks to increase its market share of travellers and improve connections for those keen to reach beyond Paris and Brussels, to the likes of Germany, Switzerland, Holland and the South of France.

Of course, the disruption to services will fade with the melting snow and Eurostar’s brand will shine once more. And it is this brand that Eurostar bosses are keen to underpin with sustainability principles.

In his new role just eight months, Nicolas joined the company in 2003 to head up customer services, following management roles at SNCF. He has spent the past four years working as former CEO Richard Brown’s chief operating officer before bagging the hot seat in April. Nicolas admits that it was his predecessor that kicked off Eurostar’s focus on environmental issues in earnest via its Tread Lightly campaign. “Under Richard’s leadership, Tread Lightly has become part of Eurostar; really at the heart of it,” he tells me in his strongly French-accented English. It is part of the DNA of the company, he goes on. “People like it and there is a resonance between the idea and the staff.”

So, what is the idea of Tread Lightly? What does it stand for? It is a rather simple environmental initiative that commits the firm to a 35% cut in emissions per traveller journey by 2012, makes all journeys carbon neutral through offsetting and informs a ten-point plan to reduce its environmental impacts – from separating and sorting waste on board its trains, to ensuring that lighting and heating at depots and stations are as energy efficient as possible (see the box out on the opposite page for all ten points).

A simple plan
It is a straightforward yet effective initiative that seems to have won the hearts and minds of staff. “People at all levels feel like it’s the right thing to do. And it’s about creating sustained interest in the programme; so, we don’t just talk about it once every year. We talk about it every month – and whenever we are talking about another topic, we consider whether it is ‘Tread Lightly’.”

“I ride a scooter,” he reveals somewhat sheepishly. “And people tell me, ‘That’s not very Tread Lightly’. Nobody’s perfect, but it is a cultural thing, where it’s top of mind.”

Staff don’t take taxis, they get the train. There are no plastic cups in the office because it is, he says, “socially unacceptable”. Like Marks & Spencer’s Plan A, Eurostar’s project seems to have taken on a life of its own – even being used as a common noun in the lexicon of its employees. But none of this stuff has happened overnight. Instilled by Richard Brown, the programme has been running for three and a half years, but there was a lot of “cynicism” to begin with, says Nicolas.

“The targets we set were meaty and not easy to achieve, so there was some cynicism. But you have to sustain it. And you have to achieve results and show you’ve achieved results. It took us six months to know where all our energy meters were and who was in charge of them. That’s not very glamorous, but it did achieve results.”

A “clever and subtle” campaign involved putting messages on stickers and pinning them on office equipment, like ‘Last year, the contact centre saved 50% of its paper usage’. It tells a success story, says Nicolas, so when you reach the photocopier, you might think twice about printing or copying something. “It’s a subtle way, instead of saying, ‘Stop photocopying, stupid’.”

With Peter Bragg heading up energy and environmental management across the business, aided by 40 custodian Tread Lightly ‘champions’, how hands on is the CEO? “Very,” comes the reply. “I chair our monthly steering group on the subject. And Peter has got access to me on a regular basis.

“When we look at any decision – whether it’s investment or change of process – we always take into account the impact on the environment. So, it’s not just Peter going around the business nagging people. We are trying to change the culture.

“I want Tread Lightly to be so linked to the brand that it cannot be taken away. And we have to live and breathe it.”

It is an impressive initiative, but is it important for customers? Clearly, taking a train journey is better for the environment than taking a plane. Detailed research commissioned for the launch of Tread Lightly offers some statistics: A journey between London, Paris and Brussels by Eurostar generates just one tenth of the greenhouse gas emissions of flying the same route. As the company’s website points out, taking your kids to Eurodisney by train emits 5.8kg of CO2 per passenger. By air it is 102.8kg.

But do people really care about this stuff, I ask Nicolas. “We know that a lot of clients want to travel with us because they know it’s better for the environment,” he says.

Research suggests that the environmental performance of the company is not the priority for customers yet, but “it is not impossible that environment gets to number 2 on the list of priorities, for example,” argues Nicolas.

“It’s important for our current customers because there is a fit between high speed rail and the environment. And clients are interested generally in these matters.”

The environmental message also taps nicely into Eurostar’s growth plans, too. There are still 20M people flying annually between London and the South-east of England and the close continent – and Eurostar wants a bigger share of that market.

But, unlike so many companies that we have profiled in these pages, little of the firm’s environmental work is driven by the need to make money, claims Nicolas. “The main driver at the start of Tread Lightly was ethics, and that hasn’t changed or evolved into something else.

“Of course, we do try to use that to get other costs benefits. But, if I’m very honest, we are not tracking it as such. If we did, I think we would lose some of the main purpose [of Tread Lightly].

“For instance, we have decided to go for [the environmental management system] ISO 14001 accreditation. But you cannot have a business case for that, can you? No. But it’s good discipline. It will strengthen procedures and add internal discipline. We do it for safety, we do it for operations, so why not for environment.”

It is an interesting approach to a sustainability programme – so often in today’s economic climate they are driven by cost saving and efficiencies. And it is particularly surprising to hear it from a CEO – we have come to expect CEOs to be driven purely by profit, loss and market share.

Pulled along by Tread Lightly and its staff embedded with people that understand the proposition, Eurostar is taking its responsibilities seriously. Train journeys, by their very nature, offer a greener option for the growing community of environmentally-conscious travellers and it would have been easy for the business to rest on its laurels, buoyed by this message. But it hasn’t, deciding instead to develop a coherent plan of action, led from the top and employed at all levels of the company.

> Travelling on Eurostar soon? Pick up your free copy of Sustainable Business, exclusively available inside the business class lounge at London’s St. Pancras

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