Reflections on five years of environmental impact

28 July 2020

When we set the ‘5 in 5’ goals at the beginning of 2015, Virgin Media was about to embark on the biggest investment in the UK’s broadband infrastructure in over a decade. This created a challenge familiar to many sustainability professionals; how do you break the link between the physical and economic growth of a company from an increase in environmental impact?

To address this, we focussed on two key areas - our operational impact on climate change and the lifecycle impacts of our products in our customers’ homes.

Around 83% of our scope 1 and 2 footprint comes from electricity use, the vast majority of this is used across our technical estate and to power our ultrafast broadband network. With the growth of the network and our customer base, as along with our commitment to offer the fastest widely available broadband speeds, we thought avoiding growth of our carbon footprint was going to be really challenging. Setting a normalised target, such as a reduction in our footprint per terabyte (TB) of data, would have been straightforward and we would have achieved it easily (we’ve reduced our footprint by 85% per TB data since 2015). But we wanted to go further and tackle that link between growth and increased emissions; we set a target to keep our scope 1 and 2 footprint flat against our 2014 baseline while growing the business over the following five years.  We felt it was important to set an ambitious goal that our people and our customers could understand, avoiding the technical language and jargon associated with some environmental targets.

It turns out we’ve smashed this target too, delivering a 42% reduction in scope 1 and 2 emissions since 2014.  If you take into account that we now source 100% of our electricity from renewable sources, we’ve reduced our market based footprint by 91%. This hasn’t just happened by accident of course. There has been a big focus and investment across the business on reducing energy and fuel, so we’re delighted to see that investment pay off.

Addressing the lifecycle impacts of our products hasn’t provided instant gratification, more of a slow burn you might say. Changing the way things have always been done takes time and perseverance. It also needs a framework to support and drive that change, and our product scorecard provided just that. What started out as a rough concept in the back of a notebook, became a reflection of the product development process, and is now directly influencing it. I’m delighted that our perseverance and the development of the product scorecard has delivered real tangible progress, enabling and empowering Virgin Media and Liberty Global (our parent company), to set standards and work with our supply chain to meet those standards. For example, we’ve faced challenges introducing recycled plastic content into product casings, but we’ve made a breakthrough with our supply chain in the past six months. This progress sets us up well for the next phase of our focus on product sustainability and circularity and how we enable and incentivise teams internally to build this into their day-to-day decision-making. More on that to follow soon.

It’s rare to be a part of setting a strategy, its delivery and its completion. . This experience over the last five years has given me an opportunity to reflect on what we’ve achieved, where we haven’t made enough progress, and what we should do differently as we develop our next strategy and set of targets. Here are my 3 key reflections:

Connecting strategy to individual responsibility and action. Awareness of the climate crisis and wider environmental issues has grown rapidly in the last few years but there’s a lack of understanding of how to directly apply this in a business context. I often find there’s a detachment between someone’s personal views on environmental issues and their ability to apply this thinking to their work. There’s also a common disconnection between having an awareness of your business’ sustainability strategy and understanding how you as an employee can get involved. As we develop our next strategy and set of goals at Virgin Media, we have to find a way to embolden individuals to take responsibility and apply their personal passion for the environment to change the way we do things for the better.

**Targets are a balancing act.**Long terms targets are required to align to the science, particularly for climate change, but in fast moving sectors like digital and telecoms it’s difficult for businesses to look too far ahead. This means long term targets have to be accompanied by significant, shorter term milestones so you know you’re on track and can recognise and celebrate progress along the way. We didn’t always get that right over the last five years, and because our footprint reduction was looking healthy, it meant there was less of urgent call to action to engage our people. However, science based targets will mean we set annual reduction targets and provide that mix of short and long term targets to ensure focus and continued motivation towards net zero.

It’s all about perseverance. As I’ve suggested above, perseverance is key to driving progress in many areas of sustainability. A long term view and targets can mean they’re not treated with urgency, particularly in fast moving sectors. When you know the end goal is right, you’ve got to stick with it.

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