Sir Richard Bran­son, Founder, Vir­gin Group (Lon­don, UK)

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Few peo­ple are more syn­ony­mous with in­ter­na­tional busi­ness acu­men than Sir Richard Bran­son. The Vir­gin brand he founded in 1970 is now at­trib­uted to ev­ery­thing from trains to planes, gyms to cola, fuel to phones. We re­cently sat down with him in the heart of East Lon­don to talk about Vir­gin’s sus­tain­abil­ity ef­forts. First though, a bit of con­text.

In 1984, de­fy­ing crit­i­cism from his com­pe­ti­tion as well as the di­rec­tors of his own com­pany, Bran­son founded Vir­gin At­lantic, which grew to the point of be­ing the sec­ond-largest Bri­tish long-haul in­ter­na­tional air­line. In 1992, to boost the suc­cess of the air­line, he sold Vir­gin Records to EMI for US$ 1 bil­lion. Soon af­ter came enor­mous ex­pan­sion in travel, telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions, health, bank­ing, mu­sic, leisure and more. It wasn’t long be­fore Bran­son be­came the only per­son to build eight bil­lion­dol­lar com­pa­nies in eight dif­fer­ent sec­tors. Cur­rently there are more than 100 Vir­gin com­pa­nies world­wide, em­ploy­ing around 60,000 peo­ple in over 50 coun­tries.

Much of Bran­son’s valu­able time these days is fo­cused on pro­mot­ing an en­vi­ron­men­tal agenda via the Vir­gin Green Fund, a lead­ing in­de­pen­dent pri­vate eq­uity firm in­vest­ing growth cap­i­tal in the re­new­able energy and re­source-ef­fi­ciency sec­tors in North Amer­ica and Europe. One of its key ar­eas of fo­cus is petroleum al­ter­na­tives, in re­sponse to global warm­ing and the re­cent spike in fuel costs. Since 2006, Bran­son has in­vested the prof­its of both Vir­gin At­lantic and Vir­gin Trains into re­search for en­vi­ron­men­tally-friendly fu­els, and the air­line has part­nered with the Car­bon War Room. “The mis­sion is to ac­cel­er­ate the adop­tion of busi­ness so­lu­tions that re­duce car­bon emis­sions at gi­ga­ton scale and ad­vance the low car­bon econ­omy by fo­cus­ing on an in­dus­try-based ap­proach,” he ex­plains. “CWR’S avi­a­tion arm is seek­ing to ad­dress the mar­ket bar­ri­ers that are cur­rently pre­vent­ing re­new­able jet fu­els from mov­ing from the test flight stage into full-scale com­mer­cial pro­duc­tion.”

Ac­cord­ing to Vir­gin Unite (the non-profit he set up in 2004 to tackle so­cial and en­vi­ron­men­tal chal­lenges), the trans­port sec­tor’s global emis­sions pro­file has grown by 45 per cent be­tween 1990 and 2007, with emis­sions ex­pected to rise by another 40 per cent be­tween 2007 and 2030. The Car­bon War Room is fo­cused on mak­ing sig­nif­i­cant car­bon re­duc­tions in the sec­tor with bet­ter trans­port mod­els, ef­fi­ciency stan­dards, con­sumer ac­cep­tance of new modes of trans­port, and adop­tion of re­new­able fu­els. Bran­son says that thanks to Vir­gin At­lantic’s de­vel­op­ment part­ner Lan­za­tech, he hopes his planes will soon be run­ning on isobu­tanol—a sugar-based fuel that has just half the car­bon foot­print of kerosene.

Learn­ing is key to Bran­son’s on­go­ing in­no­va­tions. “I travel six months a year, so I’m learn­ing all the time. I sus­pect that’s why Vir­gin has gone into so many dif­fer­ent ar­eas. It’s my in­quis­i­tive­ness—and of­ten my frus­tra­tion—that makes me feel I can do it bet­ter than some­body else is do­ing it,” he grins. He has even taken to his blog to ex­tol the virtues of giv­ing up beef—pre­vi­ously one of his favourite foods—be­cause of meat con­sump­tion’s con­tri­bu­tion to global warm­ing and en­vi­ron­men­tal degra­da­tion.

“It is es­ti­mated that 14.5 per cent of global man-made green­house gas emis­sions come from live­stock—which is more than the con­tri­bu­tion from all forms of trans­port,” he ex­plains. “Beef pro­duc­tion makes up 41 per cent of those emis­sions.” He con­tin­ues to add that in the longer term “there is also great po­ten­tial in fields like syn­thetic meat. And there are other more ef­fi­cient sources of pro­tein; like in­sects!”

“Green think­ing has to be the fu­ture, or we sim­ply won’t have a fu­ture — that’s the re­al­ity of where we’re at,” he says. “This is why I was so ex­cited to launch Vir­gin Unite, and unite busi­ness lead­ers in these projects. You might well say, ‘That’s just cap­i­tal­ism try­ing to make amends for all the ills it has thrown at the planet’, but re­ally, it’s just a group of in­di­vid­u­als who have the re­sources to make a dif­fer­ence. It’s about giv­ing

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