Ahead of the Responsible Business Summit (London, 7-8 June) where O2 will be announcing the next phase of their responsible business strategy, Ethical Corporation sat down with Bill Eyres, Head of Sustainability at the global communications company
Ethical Corporation: O2 will be announcing its next phase in the Think Big Blueprint at this year’s Responsible Business Summit; what’s on the horizon?
Bill Eyres: With our new sustainability strategy, we’ve kept the core idea that technology is a powerful enabler for social and environmental change, but we have committed to go even further and amplify our impact. This time around we’ve given innovation a bigger role, simply because we know that for change to happen on the scale that’s needed, we have to be more explicit and more ambitious about thinking differently.
That means whether it’s supporting families to manage online safety, helping young people make the most of their digital skills or enabling smart solutions for UK businesses that reduce carbon emissions, we want to make a bigger difference. We’ve also taken account of how the relationship between people and their mobile phones has changed over the last three years. While we know that technology can be a very positive force, we also understand that for some people, it brings concerns.
We want to acknowledge this openly and be at the forefront of understanding how to use digital technology in a safe, secure, and healthy way. For O2, this is about being a force for good ensuring people live well with technology, making the most of the digital transformation to build a better and more sustainable society.
EC: What has O2 learnt from the first phase of embedding sustainability into its core business functions?
BE: The first Blueprint helped make O2 a better business, as it demonstrated that we could be commercially successful and create a bigger social and environment impact. Embedding sustainability in a business requires a balance of commercial focus and living your values. This takes time, patience, and a lot of perseverance. For me, you have to take the time up-front to make sure everyone in the business believes in the plan, so they actually want to take ownership and understand what they need to do.
Following that, you need some clear governance mechanisms to track progress and measure impact, alongside open and engaging communications. The other important learning is the importance of making sure sustainability is integrated into the company’s decision-making processes, so that all new products and services have taken the social, ethical, and environmental factors into consideration at the start. We’ve found it saves a lot of hard work further down the line.
EC: What would you say are the biggest challenges for you at present when it comes to sustainable management?
BE: The biggest opportunities come when sustainability thinking leads you to a powerful customer insight. This insight enables you to build innovative products like O2 Recycle, and customer services like our online safety partnership with NSPCC. I firmly believe sustainability professionals are change agents, helping to re-engineer business to meet the changing needs of society and our customers. I’d also come back to the idea of innovation.
We’re lucky that our business relies on bold, innovative thinking so we already encourage this kind of thinking in our employees, but we do have to make sure that we translate this into developing products and services that our customers love, and that make a big impact on the world around us. You also need bold social programmes like Think Big which demonstrate that your company will go above and beyond to address fundamental challenges, like the barriers to success that young people face today.
EC: What advice would you give to a sustainability professional looking to get his or her board to prioritise sustainability?
BE: The starting point is the powerful insight you can gather that demonstrates its relevance to your company’s customers, employees and stakeholders, as well as your future success as a business. Sustainability thinking has to be focused on the unique challenges and opportunities of your business and sector. That’s why it has to be aligned with business strategy but also demonstrate the added value it will bring. Then understand your audience by identifying who on your Board is likely to be more receptive to the sustainability business case (this may even include non-executive directors) and then be relentless in seeking their support.
Also consider inviting enlightened senior executives from other leading businesses or recognised experts from NGOs to share their views with your Board. Another tactic we’ve found works well is asking our Board to take direct responsibility for certain aspects of sustainability by owning aspects of the Blueprint: it gives them an impetus to understand the rationale, and a real stake in making it work.
EC: One of the key themes of the 2016 Responsible Business Summit is industry-wide collaboration. Is it challenging to work in partnership with competitor companies?
BE: I think there’s a clear choice for most companies around this. As our understanding of sustainability and corporate responsibility has evolved, we’ve grown to see it as a competitive advantage and something that creates customer differentiation. At the same time there are social and environmental issues that are simply too big for your company to address alone. You therefore have to create a sustainability strategy that blends competition and co-operation.
It’s right to show leadership and to demonstrate what a bold company can do. Successful collaborations were the bedrock of our success in the first Blueprint: from GoThinkBig, a partnership with Bauer Media aimed at offering young people the right work skills and experience, to Eco rating where, together with Vodafone and Orange, we revamped our sustainability scoring methodology for mobile phones so customers could easily compare scores. And we’re proud to be carrying our partnership ethos forward in our new strategy, joining together with NSPCC to help keep children safe online. For me, failing to collaborate is just another way of limiting yourself.rbs sustainability strategy technology environmental change innovation Environment