BT’s Tuppen: Green carrots or sticks

Dr Chris Tuppen is one of those people you take to immediately. He's enthusiastic, kindly and clearly passionate about his subject matter, which happens to be sustainable development and corporate accountability at BT. This part of his career started eighteen years ago when he became BT's first environment manager. That was just five years after the UN report 'Our Common Future' was penned and donkey's years before most companies cottoned on to the issues.

Dr Tuppen is also a techie by background which I learnt, during many years as a journalist, is a good sign that someone is fundamentally straight. Even if they offer you the corporate line at the first attempt, a wry smile or an "is that what you really think?", is usually enough to spring a more heartfelt response. Not, I hasten to add, that I've ever felt the need to play such games with Dr Tuppen.

Today, he sent me a copy of a short (internal at the moment) paper he's written called "Green sticks or green carrots", which contrasts punishment with reward as motivators. He says that "companies and individuals can't simply be bludgeoned into making the significant changes in working practices and lifestyles that will be required. As he points out, "a volunteer is better than ten pressed men".

So what's going to drive people, given our ghastly economic climate?

Well, one thing's for sure, it's not going to be 'environment', 'sustainability' or 'green'. We hear over and over again that these are not drivers. Indeed, our own research early last year put these things very low on the list. And, if anything, this situation has worsened as companies focus on survival.

The answer lies in self interest. At the CMA conference yesterday, one of the speakers had been wholly against these funny new fluorescent lights until he realised how much he could save by changing. The price of bulbs was falling as the cost of electricity was rising. For him, the calculation became simple. He reckoned they cost him 8p each.

At the broader level, BT is investing in wind farms which it expects to meet 25 percent of its UK electricity needs by 2016. It also happens to be one of the world's largest purchasers of 'green' electricity. On the one hand it is getting costs down and achieving reliability of supply, and on the other, it is 'doing the right thing' which influences customers, suppliers and prospects. It has also set stiff targets for itself – an eighty percent reduction in carbon intensity (a ratio based on carbon to economic performance) by 2020.

Dr Tuppen recognises that the company has two duties: one to keep its environmental impact as low as possible, the other to make profits. It seems obvious that the first can lead to the second but it's something that many seem to forget.

Governments, as well as many businesses and consumers, prefer to deal with suppliers that have strong green credentials. Dr Tuppen reckons that BT's overall CSR achievements influenced customers' purchasing decisions to the tune of $2.2bn in 2007/8, an increase of £400M on the previous year.

He reminds us of ICT-driven opportunities such as teleconferencing – I've written about this stuff many times, so I won't go into it again. Except to agree, providing it's used in the way intended. It's no good using it for 'unimportant' meetings and jetting off for the important ones. (Which some people apparently do.)

He also believes that part of the answer lies in 'commitment management' which incentivises appropriate behaviours. BT uses the approach with its own suppliers. They have to sign up to exacting environmental 'life-cycle' standards in order to get the 'carrot' of new business and, indeed, a reduction of their own costs as they opt for minimal energy consumption and reduced environmental harm.

I can't help feeling there's a strong affinity with cooperative and collaborative software tools. The sort of people who are using them in earnest are willing to share, are open and transparent and would prefer to engage online until a meeting becomes necessary. Good ideas – and where better in these uncertain times than ideas that save costs and make you feel good – travel fast through social networks. People don't bother to cluster around lousy ideas.

Like 'green', social software is becoming part of the way of doing business, rather than being an activity in its own right. They are both like a horizontal layer, both of which could prove very important for a company's future health. They are both top-down and bottom-up, yet neither is really a "let's go out and buy this". They come along as a result of other, more commercial, drivers such as improving the company's relationship with its suppliers and customers, cutting costs and improving internal efficiencies.

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