The Environment Business Interview
Energy provider RWE npower's Anita Longley speaks to Tom Idle about making corporate responsibility part of the company ethos
For the past three years, Anita Longley has been Head of Corporate Responsibility at energy provider RWE npower. However, despite being a huge success for the company, if she had her way, she’d be out of a job within the next couple of years. “If you do corporate responsibility right, you don’t need a manager,” she says. “It becomes completely part of the company ethos.”
Anita is certainly in a buoyant mood. And who can blame her? Her approach to corporate responsibility (“we call it CR here, as opposed to CSR,” she says) and her drive to communicate the importance of the concept within the whole company has seen RWE npower shoot up the Business In The Community’s (BITC) Corporate Index. It rose from 36th last year to 14th this time around. I caught up with her at the firm’s Swindon head office.
Isn’t the concept of corporate responsibility just a big PR exercise?
Well, we report annually in a very open and transparent way. We don’t just report on the great things we’ve done, we also report on the things that we haven’t done so well.
We set robust targets that are in the public domain. It shows that we are committing to continuous improvement. We don’t reach our targets every year, so I guess if you wanted to PR it, you’d probably not publish those.
I guess your position in the BITC Index indicates just how well you are doing?
Yes. We use the BITC Corporate Index, which is a very open process whereby we are expected to respond to more than 90 questions about how we manage corporate responsibility. We are listed in the top 100 companies as being a company that is good at this. So that is an external verification that we are doing what we are saying.
A common problem within large companies is that, when you phone the switchboard and ask to speak to somebody in CR, they don’t have a clue what you are talking about. How do you go about encouraging and informing other members of staff here about what you are trying to achieve?
The key thing is communication and helping staff to understand what we mean by corporate responsibility.
We have a very wide-ranging communications programme and we’ve done a lot of work over the past year or two to actually engage with employees and help us understand what their perception of CR is.
From an employee perspective, there is a need to make CR relevant to an individual. So, if you’re working in a power station, we have to make sure that our communication is relevant to that particular job.
And how do you do that?
We try to communicate by example. We’ve done a lot of work recently on things such as raising environmental awareness among our employees – not just from a company perspective, but helping them understand what they can
do at home.
Also, our community programme is a really easy way for staff to get involved in corporate responsibility-type activities. Last year we had more than 800 employees involved in that programme as volunteers.
How does the community programme work?
We have three themes for our community programme. We focus on health because the health of our employees is very important to us. The second focus is the environment because, as an energy company, we clearly have an impact on the environment. And the third area is education, which is very much driven towards helping school pupils understand a whole range of issues such as the environment, how a power station works, and also the safe use of energy.
For the volunteering programme, we will work, for example, with the Wildlife Trust and they will identify a volunteering opportunity for our staff. We send out an email saying “we need a group of volunteers to help do this…”
Often there are teams in the office that want to do some teambuilding and they’ll use volunteering as a mechanism for doing that.
This year, we’ve also got a target of getting more than 1,000 employees involved in volunteering in the community.
Why is it so successful?
The important thing, in terms of getting staff involved, is leadership from the top. Our senior managers also take part in volunteering activities and we have teambuilding days
for them as well. It also demonstrates that they are committed to this.
When it comes to the company’s CR practice, how is your success gauged?
Externally, the success is measured by the BITC benchmark and that’s a really useful management tool for us because it helps to identify weaknesses and strengths in our CR programme and measure ourselves against our competitors.
This year, we have been shortlisted for Company of the Year and we actually won an award for impact on society, so for me that’s a pretty good endorsement that we’re doing things properly.
What reaction do you get from the local communities that are benefiting from your volunteering programmes?
They are not always eternally grateful and don’t always think ‘oh, isn’t npower wonderful’. They are more intelligent than that. That’s why partnerships are important. We can’t be inflicting community programmes on communities that don’t want them.
Is there more pressure on you because of the nature of npower’s business?
No, because there are different pressures in different sectors anyway. If you were doing this job in Boots, for example, you’d have other issues to address. And you would be much closer to the customer, so there would be different types of issues. I don’t think there’s any significant pressure.
But npower does have quite a significant environmental impact?
That’s true, but we’ve got a very, very good track record in environmental responsibility, and a long history of managing it properly and understanding what the issues are. Our CR programme has evolved from an environmental programme.
I suppose the key is giving something back to the community.
Yes, and one example is how we work with the National Health Service.
Health Through Warmth is an initiative addressing the issue of fuel poverty. You are in fuel poverty if you spend more than 10% of your income on energy bills and there is an extremely high level of fuel poverty in the UK. It’s basically about people living in houses of a very poor standard – cold, damp houses. Around 30,000 people a year die of illness relating to fuel poverty. It’s extraordinary because that’s a larger figure than in Scandinavia and other places with a colder climate.
And how does npower help?
We train community workers to spot the signs of fuel poverty. So, for example, community nurses, who are going into people’s houses anyway, are trained so that they can understand whether there might be a risk that somebody is living in fuel poverty.
The scheme works by those community workers referring either to the Government for grants or through us for help in insulating their house and installing more energy-efficient heating systems.
Fuel poverty is not well known in the UK but is actually quite a big issue. We’re just about to invest another £3 million into the programme.
What npower is doing is obviously very honourable but is it right that you are having to do what you are doing?
I think we have a role to play. The problem is, as an energy supplier, this is something we cannot solve. Yes, we do have a responsibility but we’re only part of the solution and just one of a number of agencies that need to be involved. But we are more than willing to play our part.
What has been the key to your success?
It’s all about communication. And communication at all levels in the company. If you don’t do that, nothing happens. You just stand still.
You are obviously a business that has come to realise that CR activities do affect the bottom line. Why is it taking so long for other companies to realise that having a good reputation is important?
Some small companies, I would argue, are doing it anyway. But what they’re not doing is having that external profile.
I think that in the UK now, you’d be hard pressed to find
a company that really doesn’t believe that this is linked to reputation.
So, your advice to others would be: communication, communication, communication?
If you have leadership at a senior management level who don’t buy into CR, it isn’t going to happen.
Also, you have to be able to make a business case for doing it. You can’t just say: ‘We’ll do this because it’s a nice thing to do.’
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