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