One goal, two approaches: Virgin Media and Cisco tackle sustainability

By Karuna Kumar

“I’m a firm believer that sustainability should be about opportunities and not sacrifices and with creativity, innovative thinking and passion, we can actually create a better future. That’s what gets me up in the morning and it’s great to be doing it with a brand that can bring some fun to the agenda, too,” says Katie Chapman, Acting Head of Sustainability and Reporting at Virgin Media.

Chapman oversees the delivery of the company’s sustainability strategy and makes sure she communicates the progress of her efforts to employees with transparency and creativity.

“We’re working hard to embed sustainability into how we do business, making it everyone’s responsibility. Our CR & Sustainability team is relatively small while the rest of our team focus on Virgin Media’s social investment activities.”

Cisco on the other hand depends on a network of Green Ambassadors who work under the leadership of an executive sponsor to integrate sustainability into the fabric of the business. Each of the Green Ambassadors at Cisco hold a dual citizenship which means that in addition to their defined roles within the organization, they also execute the sustainability strategy with their country and region.

“I believe passionately in the need for society to change its relationship with our environment. This is not limited to climate change, but extends to resource exploitation and our collective response to these joint challenges,” says Ian Walker, who currently leads Cisco’s UKI Sustainable Operations initiative, worldwide.

Walker believes that in spite of the proven urgency, few nations are prepared to risk losing competitive advantage by assuming unilateral costs:

“Most citizens are similarly not yet prepared radically to change their behaviour voluntarily. It is therefore up to corporations to take a lead both in creating new markets and enabling the seismic shifts required to reduce our dependency on carbon and increasingly scarce resources.”

Virgin Media’s digital approach

Speaking of the ways to adopt sustainability within large organisations, Chapman and Walker offer insightful narratives.

Virgin Media“Virgin Media is still a young business, so we’re quite early on in our sustainability journey. The past couple of years have been more about making sure we’ve got the right structures and processes in place on the issues that matter. Our biggest initiative has been the launch and development of our new, exclusively digital approach to reporting. The main idea that underpins our approach to content is show not tell,” explains Chapman.

Virgin Media’s sustainability website offers the latest news, interviews with key people and articles and HD videos about their progress on the sustainability journey. From the new teardrop lorries, to closed loop paper system to what it’s like being a female apprentice, employees generate content using flip cams and display what’s going on behind the scenes to the make the business more sustainable.

“We’ve found that there’s no better way to engage our employees in our sustainability story than by making them the stars of the show,” she adds.

When making the film titled, “The Little Red Box”, internal teams approached Chapman with their own ideas about content. The piece came about as a result of the logistics team wanting to tell the story of the Quickstart packaging solution, which can be re-used up to 7 times.

Sustainability at Cisco

CiscoProviding insight about the approach to sustainability at Cisco, Walker says, “In 2006, we established the Cisco EcoBoard, focused on combining the power of innovation with collaboration to create the most sustainable model for addressing global climate change. This model ensures that our sustainability strategy remains intimately aligned with our business priorities by means of four key capabilities: market access, market enablement, differentiation, and positioning/competition.”

Implementing that strategy led Cisco to reduce its carbon output by more than 27% in a single year primarily by shifting internal business collaboration from air-travel to the pervasive use of technology. Cisco’s own use of Telepresence video conferencing has achieved 330,000 tonnes in carbon reduction from unnecessary flights which consequently led to over $500m in cost savings and thousands of hours of saved productivity.

“It’s a powerful message, and proof that technology really can change behaviour in a positive way,” Walker points out.

Two initiatives that have stood out in particular for Walker was Cisco’s partnership with BT to launch the Ellen MacArthur Foundation that works with the industry, academia and young people to promote the concept of a Circular Economy and an employee-led initiative to harvest honey.

Illustrating Cisco’s corporate and individual engagement in sustainability, the two initiatives whilst being radically different, are at the core of making sustainability a key strand in Cisco’s growth and expansion strategy.

Challenges to approach

Virgin Media's dedicated websiteTaking a digital approach has helped Virgin Media reduce the roadblocks to achieving sustainability. How so? Chapman explains, “It has made the whole process a lot more straightforward. It gives us a flexible approach that means we can tailor content to different audiences. We can update the content instantaneously, so it’s never out of date. It enables us to actually show people what we’re doing in a way that fits with our brand.

“After all, we’re a digital business, so why wouldn’t we put digital at the heart of our approach to telling our sustainability story?”

At Cisco, the biggest challenges are more external than internal.

“With the financial crisis, many people are focused on more immediate threats caused by job losses, instability and economic uncertainty. There are still too many heavyweight naysayers casting doubt on the validity and impact of man-made global warming. Even the government has recently pulled back from some of its earlier commitments to focus on carbon-reduction. As Dr. James Martin has said, there is a danger that only a catastrophe will bring about the necessary will to change,” says Walker.

The role of corporations therefore becomes critical.

According to the SMART 2020 Report, ICT has the potential to reduce global emissions up to 15% by 2020.

Greenpeace identifies Cisco as the leading technology change to create meaningful solutions, such as EnergyWise, that enable active energy management.

Demonstrating the seriousness with which Cisco is committed towards sustainability, Walker highlights some of the recent key initiatives. “Our EMEA CEO, Chris Dedicoat, has been a key influencer in the decision to support Ellen MacArthur’s work and its influence on the Circular Economy. He has also recently appointed a Senior Director to lead sustainability in Europe, thereby further raising the profile of the Green agenda. We have set ourselves ambitious targets further to reduce carbon emissions by 25% by the end of 2012,” Walker says.

Collaboration with internal comms teams and embedding employee engagement

“Sustainability is something that can’t be siloed or isolated from other parts of the business so it’s really important to take an integrated approach. As a Virgin brand, it’s really important that we approach things with the kind of personality you’d expect from us – fun, human, straightforward. Just because we’re talking about sustainability, it doesn’t mean we should change any of this,” says Chapman.

Nearly two thirds of people who responded to Virgin Media’s engagement survey, Heartbeat, said that Virgin Media’s social and environmental performance is particularly important to them.

“Engaging our employees in sustainability is not so much about helping us meet our targets. It’s more about demonstrating what kind of company we are. And that’s really important to us,” Chapman explains.

In March 2011, Cisco formed the Sustainability Steering Group to accelerate its efforts to engage specific business units in Cisco with a critical role to play in emissions-reduction.

Cisco Telepresence“Indeed without the power of internal communications, much of the impact of our efforts would be compromised. As with all large companies, Cisco employees struggle with the fire hose of information received, so the positioning and timing of sustainability communications dictates its impact to a large degree. Employees respond most effectively when there is an integral link between sustainability messaging and our overall go-to-market strategy,” says Walker.

Cisco organizes a bi-annual e-Scrap day where employees can bring in their old electronic equipment and Cisco takes care of its recycling reflecting its commitment to maximise the utilisation of components and rare-metals in addition to links to their work on the Circular Economy and closing the loop on product creation and utilization.


“We’re in the middle of this year’s engagement survey as we speak and I can’t share any results yet but we’ve had loads of comments and messages of support from our staff. Like most sustainability teams, we don’t have the budgets of the marketing department but this year, we’ve learned that with great ideas, we can create really innovative and engaging content. We’ll definitely be doing more of that in 2012,” Chapman says.

Walker believes that there are still too many people for whom sustainability is not a priority, for a variety of often very cogent reasons. There are radical changes that can be made, like mandating air-travel reduction, but it is only possible where realistic alternatives, like Telepresence and Webex, are available and pervasive.

“The key is to implement policies and practices which are reasonable, and enable people to perform their jobs, but with a lower energy usage or smaller carbon footprint, and to keep doing this incrementally, year on year. The Cisco-on-Cisco story is very powerful: as a large Enterprise of more than 60,000 people, we use our own employees to test our products and demonstrate the productivity, cost and carbon savings that can be made,” says Walker.

Technology such as EnergyWise is a non-intrusive way of introducing energy management to the desktop, enabling power-down to device-level.

“Although there are mixed feelings about removing the responsibility for powering down your own laptop or desk phone, for me it is more important to achieve the end result of reducing consumption,” he adds.

Lessons for 2012

Moving into 2012, the biggest challenge that Walker sees is to maintain mindshare with employees, reflecting the wider dilution of the climate change agenda globally. The idea is to maintain a longer-term perspective in Cisco’s sustainability strategy by continuing engagement in the circular economy development and the impact that it promises for the supply chain. The cloud strategy is also seen as a key enabler of sustainability by facilitating access to services and applications on an as-needed basis.

On a conclusive note, Walker says, “It is perhaps a cliché, but I continue to hold in my mind a conversation that I will have with my children in 20 years’ time when they ask why we prevaricated for so long in acting on climate change and its implications. I want to avoid that sense of guilt, which accompanies pointing a finger in the direction of politicians and other world leaders when I answer.”


“It’s not a corporate thing, it’s a Virgin Media thing.”

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