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Sir Richard Branson: Championing the Green Economy

Richard Branson

Sir Richard Branson tells the Ecologist what kind of world he would like to see his grandchildren grow up in and argues that organisations both public and private have a responsibility to ensure the next generation inherit just such a world........

An ethos of collaboration and innovation is at the core of my vision

The thought of having grandchildren fills me with joy, although at times I do wonder what sort of planet we are leaving behind for them to inherit. From conflict to climate change, environmental disasters to the economic crisis, the problems we are facing are steadily stacking up.

However, I am cautiously optimistic that we can make the world a far better, safer and more equitable place if business and enterprise sits at the heart of the healing process. I firmly believe that it is our responsibility to try and leave the planet in a better condition than we found it.

As a young man, the team and I wanted to grow Virgin because we were having fun doing it. We took it day by day and if we spotted a chance to develop the business, we grabbed it. However, as the company grew into new markets, it soon became apparent that we were having an influence on some aspects of public life. All organisations, be they public or private, have a responsibility to exert a positive influence on society.

Governments and businesses need to work together for the benefit of everyone. It should no longer be just about typical "corporate social responsibility" where the "responsibility" bit is usually the realm of a small team buried in a basement office - it should be about every single person taking responsibility to make a difference in everything they do, both at work and in their personal lives.

At Virgin Unite, the non-profit foundation of the Virgin Group, we call this approach Capitalism 24902. It is focused on getting business leaders all over the world, all 24,902 miles of it, to look at how we can do what is right for our people (both the current and future generations) and the planet.

I am fortunate that over 40 years we have built a strong, capable and very independent management team who look after the for-profit companies within the Virgin Group and allow me to dedicate 80% of my time to Virgin Unite. Recently, we helped to incubate and launch a new global non-profit organisation called The B Team, which has started to frame a new approach to business where people and the planet are priorities alongside profit.

A business is effectively a group of talented individuals working towards a united goal. If those goals are set using The B Team's framework, great things can happen and improve the world we leave for our grandchildren. Business leaders should think about more than the bottom line when running a company. Even though The B Team is in its infancy, it will move the business needle away from short-term profit driven returns toward true returns benefiting people and the planet for the long run.

My passion for protecting the planet and championing the green economy was kick-started after I received a telephone call from Al Gore. He wanted to show me his stunning documentary An Inconvenient Truth. His poignant and elegant account of these issues really struck a chord with me as an interested non-expert.

As a big buyer of fuel for our transport businesses, we are very aware of the damage that oil and its greenhouse gas emissions are doing to the environment. Nevertheless, the transport industry has done a tremendous amount of good as well, connecting people and uniting our planet. I envision for my grandchildren a world where transport is more accessible than it has ever been, but more environmentally-friendly as well. We hope Virgin Galactic will be at the centre of this, with point-to-point space travel a possibility for the generations to come.

Our airlines are bringing together the industry and encouraging the main players to reduce carbon emissions across their operations. This involves investing in new efficient planes and engines, as well as developing sustainable, low carbon aviation biofuels. I believe the future will see clean fuels produced from materials like isobutanol, which will power planes without omitting carbon. The healthy spirit of competition will move the industry towards cleaner aviation.

Additionally, Virgin is tackling the barriers to carbon reduction by overseeing a $25 million prize (The Virgin Earth Challenge), which is looking for scalable, sustainable ways of removing greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. We hope one day somebody will win this most difficult challenge by coming up with a way of extracting the equivalent of Europe's total yearly carbon emissions. The winner of the prize will potentially save the world from all the consequences of global warming - by far the most important thing any individual could achieve.

I am also inspired by the work Virgin Unite has done with Nelson Mandela to help bring together a group of global leaders called The Elders, who work independently to resolve conflict and human rights issues. It is this ethos of collaboration and innovation which is at the core of my vision for not only my grandchildren but the grandchildren of us all.

We are so pleased our children, Holly and Sam, have embraced this philosophy and are working hard to bring about positive change. Sam has set up a film production company called Sundog Pictures, which uses the medium of film to inspire and engage people on the issues he is passionate about, with films such as ‘Breaking the Taboo' bringing the failed war on drugs to many people's attention. Meanwhile Holly has thrown herself into supporting Free the Children, set up her own charity, The Big Change Charitable Trust, and devotes a lot of her time to Virgin Unite.

It makes me proud to see my children carving out their own path and using the fortunate position they are in to help other people. To know that these values will remain in place after I eventually go (not too soon I hope!) makes me feel very comfortable about the legacy I will be leaving. This ethos is visible across the younger generation, who are becoming increasingly socially and environmentally-conscious.

Put simply, the kind of world I would like to leave my grandchildren is a better one. I hope all our efforts and initiatives will start a chain reaction that will filter through the generations to come and positively influence the world. After all, there is no Planet B.

Sir Richard Branson is Founder of the Virgin Group. Through more than 200 companies worldwide, Virgin employs approximately 50,000 people in over 30 countries. Since starting youth culture magazine Student aged 16, Branson has found entrepreneurial ways to provoke positive change in the world. In 2004 he established Virgin Unite, the non-profit foundation of the Virgin Group, which tackles tough social and environmental problems and strives to make business a force for good.


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