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“What we need is the reinvention of capitalism itself,” says Niall Dunne of BT

Jan 22, 2013

As Chief Sustainability Officer at British Telecom, Niall Dunne heads the company’s climate change and sustainable development strategy. He not only coordinates all sustainability initiatives across BT, but also seeks to integrate sustainability practices into the groups’ strategy, products and services. Excerpts from an interview with Bushra Ahmed and Rajiv Tikoo of OneWorld South Asia.

Niall Dunne

OneWorld South Asia: You are a Young Global Fellow of the World Economic Forum? Does it make your work easier?

Niall Dunne: The group is a network of people who are not only looking at things differently but are also capable of changing systems such as social and business systems. When you take and deploy the World Economic Forum group’s ideas and energy about where the world is heading and where the world needs to go, it is backed by the power of business and government. I think this is a real opportunity to start getting excited about new ways of looking at things and so in a way it has made life easier and keeps my optimism at a very high level because the people you meet there constantly test you and push you to higher levels.

OWSA: BT has a large CSR and sustainability portfolio. How does the relationship between the two play out? How do you prevent the overlap?

ND: We used to have a CSR director and a CSO, but at a point of my term we broke them all and fitted them together. We brought them together because we think all these things like social impact, environmental impact etc are all part of one big thing and they need to have one unified governance structure that actually drives the changes needed within the business and across all  over.

OWSA: If CSR has been brought within the CSO portfolio, how do you have a business case for CSR engagement?

ND: CSR is largely about having a social impact and tackling social issues. Look at our key growth markets and at what the big social issues are. Three billion people all around the world are earning less than $2 a day and the governments in those markets are largely struggling about what to do with the people in slums, towns, and villages.For business to prove that you can actually work at grassroots level and tackle some of those social issues, you need to show the ability not just to grow the topline but also to tackle the social issues that no government, no NGO in the row is actually going to do anything about. What we don’t have is a system of measuring. I am not talking about just a BT system of measuring. What we need is a more fundamental reinvention which is the reinvention of capitalism itself. Being the leader means you need to start doing the due diligence, running pilots, capturing the inputs, the social impacts of those pilots and then putting them down on the table as a part of conversations with the government and the customers saying that this is how we are measuring values ourselves. And, of course, you are dealing with a lot of issues that the governments and customers are facing with it as well and proving it that you can think and tackle some of these issues and think about social investments. So, you want to think about how we could bring these communities within reach so that they can actually become our customers of tomorrow.

OWSA: BT India introduced its Sustainability Index initiative some years ago. But why was it discontinued? Is there any plan to revive it?

ND: TERI was a part of the initiative in 2009 and 2010, and it was probably ahead of its time. But if you look at it, it is absolutely the right way to look at things. I think it is the right time to go back to TERI and see how we can restart that initiative again.

OWSA: BT itself spends 1.5 per cent of its profit on CSR and sustainability and the Indian government has also made CSR spend/ reporting mandatory for companies. How would you view this?

ND: I am always hesitant to suggest that corporate spending should be imposed mandatorily. I believe in public-private partnerships (PPP) and actually moving beyond white papers and research studies and conducting pilots and delivering projects that have tangible impact on the ground and learning faster from it.This whole concept of driving change is not just dependent upon businesses but also on entire ecosystems. PPPs are something new to all of us but we can actually start doing that by putting the capital and investment behind these pilots that would help in delivering social impacts, improve the environment and enrich people’s lives. I think that would be a more effective solution rather than imposing mandatory laws on businesses.

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