Interviews

Sustainability might be a buzz word, but Ricoh's focus on bees shows benefit of agenda

9 min read

19 June 2015

Ricoh's head of corporate responsibility tells us how the IT company turned an annual environmental day into a month, what impact it's had, and why businesses of all sizes across any sector can make sustainability a priority.

Many businesses have increasingly seen sustainability as a concern – not just in terms of environmental impact, but for the company’s success too. Some research reflected that businesses which adopted environmental, social and governance policies in the 1990s went on to outperform those that didn’t.

It can though, still be seen as a secondary concern, which is why an ongoing initiative at Ricoh is interesting for other companies to take a look at.

The IT services company runs a global scheme directed by the headquarters in Japan to put the spotlight on sustainability and ways for staff to go green not just at work but at home too. It started off as one day a year on 5 June to tie in with the UN’s World Environment Day, but was expanded into an entire “Eco-Action” month four years ago.

The UK branch decided to introduce a different theme for each week of the month to “keep it fresh for staff” as James Deacon, Ricoh’s head of corporate responsibility, explained. Last year, the company picked travel and a different mode each week from cycle schemes to car sharing.

“It was so successful Ricoh decided to replicate it globally,” Deacon said. The layout for 2015’s Eco-Action month started with energy management, then considered resource and waste management. The third week focused on what Deacon termed “travel avoidance” and the fourth on biodiversity.

Business in the Community estimated that by 2050 there will be nine billion people on earth and if general day-to-day business continues to operate in the same way, three times the current planet’s resources would be needed by 2050. This suggests businesses as well as individuals should be looking toward sustainable best practice.

Deacon said a priority at Ricoh has been trying to provide useful suggestions that can be transferred home with the employees – rather than just a one-off trial they leave at work at the end of the day.

He pointed to the biodiversity week as an example. “We’re focusing on pollinators like bees and butterflies, as they’re having a bit of a tough time at the moment, so we’re encouraging people to think about helping where they can, whether it’s a window box or working on a whole garden,” he explained.

It may seem counterintuitive to put emphasis on such actions solely for a month, rather than making it at the forefront of employees’ minds throughout the year, to try and foster an embedded awareness of sustainability. The approach of honing in on various areas of concern throughout the month, and attempting to provide guidance to help staff implement adjustments throughout their day-to-day lives, does however, seem like a workable one. 

Deacon said last year’s travel focus resulted in over 200 employees signing up and there are now around 34 regular car-sharers. “We’re looking at scaleability for the future and how this can be transferred to ad hoc journeys too,” he said. “There have been times I’ll go to a meeting somewhere and then spot a colleague who is also going to the same place for a different meeting and if there had been a little more forethought, we could have coordinated that.”

Elsewhere, the company is attempting to tackle the entrenched culture of workers needing to be seen in the office by managers to emphasise that they are contributing value. An internal project had been introduced late 2014 and has been reinforced for Eco-Action month – aiming to encourage uptake of virtual meetings rather than in-person ones. “There are times face-to-face meetings are necessary, but so much stuff can be done virtually now. We’re trying to encourage those who hadn’t thought about it before to give it a try,” Deacon said. 

Business can be conducted using portable video conferencing desktops and apps and Deacon is hoping this encouragement will result in employees opting for virtual meetings for the month, rather than cancelling them altogether. “It’s the way business is going anyway,” he summarises.

Deacon believes the focus on getting staff to try out such initiatives will help to slowly overhaul the longstanding impression that you need to show your face to be seen as productive. “An emerging area we’re seeing for growth is embracing the new way of working. We’re looking towards where people are measured less on where you and when you work and more at what you produce,” he explained.

“A lot of people now work remotely and it’s being more accepted. I think younger generations are coming to expect more flexibility on this from employers, so you’ve also got to consider it from the talent attraction and retention angle. This kind of approach could ultimately save money.”

Comparing quarterly data for the first quarter of 2015 to the same period from 2014 indicated a 760 per cent increase in “air time” usage of Ricoh’s video-conferencing and its virtual desktop-sharing applications. There has also been a nine per cent reduction in car miles travelled.

Image: Shutterstock

Deacon also pointed to the 3.3 per cent growth in total turnover, along with Ricoh’s highest-ever profitability for 2014 financial year – indicating that reducing travel doesn’t necessarily mean a detrimental commercial impact.

Ricoh operates in around 200 countries and regions, so its ability to coordinate a wide-ranging global initiative also suggests that businesses of all sizes can make sustainability a functioning concept across all branches, rather than a flash in the pan fad.

For the IT company, the sustainability factor has served as an alignment tool when considering which suppliers it is working with – if both are focused on this, it serves as a useful way to work alongside one another more effectively.

With that in mind, why are some still slow to pick up on making adjustments within their own businesses? Deacon suggested for many smaller businesses, there’s “an easier task of communicating the ideas to the workforce” which should make the take-up of sustainability easier to some degree.

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Reluctance stems, he suggested, from the return on investment plan point. “Investors are currently thinking more short-term and want that quicker return on investment, which has been a barrier to entry,” he said.

Nevertheless, Deacon feels businesses should look towards taking action independently, rather than being pushed towards it with a “reluctant compliance culture”. A useful starting point may be considering how ideas can be extended to the home as well as the office, to provide tangible benefits from unsure or indifferent employees.

From Ricoh’s perspective, the impact has been noticeable, though wide-ranging and long-lasting effects take time to materialise, particularly throughout the entire company. For businesses looking to improve their sustainability practice, patience it seems, is a necessary attribute for senior management to maintain as schemes are rolled out.

Image: Shutterstock