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Making business sustainable

Mar 25, 2009

BT’s new index will help drive corporate India’s action in addressing the country’s biggest sustainability challenges, says Janet Blake, head of global CSR for BT. In an interview with OneWorld South Asia, she shares how sustainability is critical to BT’s business and green agenda.

The corporate sector in India needs to move the discourse beyond basics philanthropy and environmental care and take positive action. The recently launched BT Sustainable Development Index is a means to measure the performance of business in India in their progression towards sustainable development over time. Excerpts from a conversation with Janet Blake, Head of Global Corporate Social Responsibility, BT Global Services:

OneWorld South Asia: How does BT as a global business address the issue of sustainability?

Janet Blake: BT sees sustainability as the core part of its business agenda. Sustainability for us is about managing the impact we have on society and the environment in a way that benefit the local communities and local environment but also is beneficial and has a positive impact back on BT. We see it as a necessary element to make our activities sustainable and to really make BT a sustainable business globally. We see it very much in that context.

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Growth in the business context meets the needs of people today but also looks after the next generations. And in the context we are talking about at the moment, developing countries… India particularly, is highly relevant in terms of challenges facing …not just India but other high-growth countries too.

OWSA: So you would then say responsible business is sustainable business?

JB: Yes, we would and the reason we say that is that we track a number of elements that show us the direct correlation between acting responsibly and maintaining a sustainable business over the long term. And there are two or three key things that we measure and this allows us to know this.

The first one is the obvious one - the brand and reputation. If you are acting as a business globally, the responsibility and the integrity you have as a brand is incredibly important to the business you do. We measure from our customers in UK the extent to which where we do act responsibly to make them very or extremely satisfied with our company and about 50% say there is a direct correlation. So we know that responsible action means strong brand.

But importantly, in the current economic climate, we also know responsible business brings cost-reductions. For instance, we have done a lot of work around environmental savings. And since 2004 we know £365 million were savings being realized through those environmental actions. So that’s incredibly important for any business. It’s not only being responsible but also keeping costs down.

And the third example I can give you is that businesses around the globe are now much more demanding on their suppliers. BT is in a business-to-business relationship globally and our customers ask us far more detailed questions that they ever did about how responsibly we manage our business, before they choose to do business with us. And just this last financial year 07-08, we found that about £2.2 billion worth of business that came into BT had our CSR credentials, sustainability credentials at the core part of the decisions to do business with BT. So there’s a very direct correlation between responsible business and sustainable business.

OWSA: You have recently launched the BT Sustainable Development Index in India. What was the objective of this project? 

JB: We have been doing sustainable business in India for some years and it’s a growth business area, growth market for us. But what we saw was something of a gap around the understanding about what were the sustainability challenges most critical for India, and we felt we could very sensibly do some work to bring a thought leadership to the current debate.

We partnered with a company called GlobeScan, they are a research company in the sustainability field. We developed with them a methodology to highlight or identify the top twelve sustainability criteria for India specifically, its biggest challenges. And then secondly, to measure to what extent business in India currently is meeting these challenges. And what we found was that there was quite an interesting gap. So our objective was to bring a thought leadership to what is a huge challenge, focused particularly on India, and provide really a set of outcomes and results.

OWSA: How does the Index rate India’s corporate performance in sustainable development? Did climate change figure as a concern in corporate action?

JB: It’s important to say the Index does not compare India with any other country. In that sense, it is different from other surveys done. It looks very specifically to challenges for India. You would have seen in the results that the 12 public areas that came out as the biggest challenges were actually identified by a very senior group of business and NGO leaders within India who have a huge amount of capabilities and understanding of what those challenges are. Those individuals came together and identified the top 12 issues. And then the research looked at how the corporate are currently addressing those priorities.

Climate change is a concern and it certainly comes out in the challenges areas and gap where corporate action is not addressing those challenges sufficiently at the moment. But my point is actually that of water, and of water scarcity and water cleanliness which you could say are tied partly due to climate change and natural resources.

OWSA: Did the findings reveal anything about India’s corporate performance ratings in the global context?

JB: The answer is no and that was because we deliberately did not set out to do that. We deliberately did not want to look at any comparisons or any ratings or rankings with other countries. There are a lot of other mechanisms to do that – other indexes, other surveys. So one of the unique differences in this index is that it really focuses very specifically on India, and therefore removes the discussion about how India compares; and focuses the discussion much more on understanding the challenges and driving action.  

OWSA: Did the Index identify the barriers to achieving sustainable development in India?

JB: In itself the Index doesn’t identify the barriers. However, part of the purpose of having the index was that it could be used as a discussion tool and as a catalyst for understanding those barriers and removing them. What I mean by that is this research in itself highlights the issues, highlights the gaps.

When we launched the index back in November 2008, we brought together a number of eminent panelists to discuss some of the challenges. Now during that discussion, I didn’t hear it live, but I understand that there was a lot of debate amongst senior business leaders on those barriers and their resistance to really engaging in development activities. And to my mind as a sustainability expert, that’s where the value of the index starts to drive action, starts to get people engaged in what’s happened, and starts to bring the right people together to create solutions.

What we are looking forward to is to use this index, it’s an annual index – we looking to repeat it in 2009 and 2010 – we are now looking to engage a number of business organizations and to table it as the core area on which senior leaders can focus their understanding but also their action. For instance, the BT Chairman in India Arun Seth is very keen to use it in a number of business network organizations within India. That’s how we see the report driving action and going forward.

OWSA: Finally, how can India improve its performance and move up on the Index? And what are BT’s plans in this direction?

JB: This is where I was talking earlier about driving action and engaging the right people in business, and NGOs and governments to start shaping that action. How India can move forward is to use this index in a way to focus on the known issues and drive action forward, and to stop talking about or stop comparing specific activities against either the past or other similar countries. We see this index providing a solid base of information from which organizations, governments, NGOs can actually plan and move forward.

One example, the Chair of the panel of eminent seniors actually that came up with the core criteria area was a gentleman called Nitin Desai and he is the UN Under-Secretary for Economic and Social Affairs. He is ideally placed to take this information forward and to engage with a number of economic and social governmental bodies to drive action.

Similarly Leena Srivastava, Executive Director with an environmental organization, has actually written, as you may have seen, a section at the back of the report, sharing how the index can start to drive action going forward. So much of the opportunity for India to move forward is actually to use the information, to use the key leaders to go and challenge others.

And for the second part of the question, we have, through people like Arun Seth, a number of instrumental relationships into organizations as well as, obviously, into a number of corporate partner organizations. So we see ourselves taking the role of ambassadors or champions for a lot of these actions into our own business partnership. Arun is heading that activity at the moment.

We have globally a number of very specific CSR priorities; some of those are around social activities. You know the LifeLines service we provide in India but there are a number of other very innovative services we provide globally for communities.

Additionally we are currently addressing a very ambitious target we set ourselves at BT, which is to reduce the carbon emissions in our own operations by 80%. That’s a huge ambitious target which is going to have a significant impact on the environment and climate change through BT’s own activities. We are doing those globally. Clearly they will have both a direct impact on our own usage of energy in operations, but more important, because we are offering a more carbon-efficient network for our global corporate customers, that’s going to have a very indirect impact through our customers both in India and the rest of the world.

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