Sustainability: Green-sky thinking

James Murdoch talks to Robin Hicks on making Sky carbon neutral and why other brands should follow.

Here is a company that gives staff discounts on hybrid cars, runs lift-sharing schemes, only uses renewable energy and encourages people to cycle to work. Its offices have lights that turn off when you leave the room, and it is funding renewable energy projects to offset the emissions it can't avoid. It is even being so bold as to tell its eight million customers how to use its products in more environmentally friendly ways.

No, it's not The Body Shop or the Co-op Bank. Nor the "caring capitalists" at Ben & Jerry's. This is BSkyB, the broadcasting giant owned by Rupert Murdoch, which announced in May it was fully "carbon neutral".

Sky has long held a strong environmental record, but the move raised eyebrows. As The Economist pointed out in a feature on the rise of environmentally aware businesses last month: "Rupert Murdoch is no green activist." Neither is his youngest son, James, Sky's chief executive. Murdoch junior is, however, among a growing community of "corporate greens" who see climate change not only as a potentially disastrous global issue, but as a business opportunity.

At the end of last year, the man tipped to succeed his father at the helm of News Corp gave the go-ahead for Sky to go carbon neutral. In the past 18 months, he has ensured that the company's "carbon footprint" has reduced by almost a half, and has set emissions targets that put Tony Blair's to shame. In a rare interview, James Murdoch talked to Campaign about why the TV company famed for football and light entertainment is taking the environmental high ground.

- For you personally, what made the penny drop that climate change is a genuine problem?

The timeframe in which solutions can work is pretty broad. But the time we have to find solutions isn't. There's a sense of urgency, and we're already latecomers. That our brand is front and centre in one in three homes in this country helped me realise we could change things, and I very much believe that over the next decade this issue overrides all issues. And now we're getting our own house in order comes the most exciting part: talking to our customers. We visit three-and-half-million houses a year, and the launch of Sky Broadband means visiting more people in their homes, which is a great opportunity to talk to them about ways to save energy.

- One might expect the BBC, a public service broadcaster, to be the first big media company to go carbon neutral. Is this about stealing a march on your rivals and reintroducing Sky as a softer brand?

This kind of issue has to be a commercial decision. You have to look at it and think: "What are the things about our brand that will connect with our customers over the long term?" No question, what we're doing surprises people. But that has less to with what we're really about and more to do with our image in the media. This is not about us stealing a march on anyone. It would be great if more in the broadcasting sector got involved, because no-one can take this on alone ... So what sort of thing is the advertising community doing in this area?

- Very little. Two sizeable agencies have gone carbon neutral. One did so five years ago, but acquired a reputation for being hair-shirt-wearing hippies. It's a tough time for the ad industry, so it's unlikely agencies will do anything until their clients tell them to.

The environmental movement hurt itself by making it about sacrifice for long-term benefits that you may never see, which is a hard message to sell. But there are technologies that are simple and don't, as you say, mean putting on a hair-shirt. We've just moved into this building. We paid a little more money for the air conditioning. The units have chill beams. They're lower emissions and have fewer moving parts, so over a period of time we'll save. Same thing with fuel-efficient cars. We're not about to start walking to work, right? All we're trying to do is encourage people to make a different choice. We're not forcing anyone. The lights above us will turn off as soon as we leave the room. We didn't give anything up for this. You aspire to this stuff. It makes you feel that you're part of a forward-thinking, innovative company.

- Sky is more about entertaining than informing. If we are to expect more "green" programming on Sky, won't this jar with what viewers expect?

Not really. We made a programme last year called Final Chance to Save, which was a quality documentary, but still entertaining. You'll see more of it, particularly on Sky Travel, which is a natural fit. But it's important not to preach or scare people. It's sometimes helpful to capture the issue in a big, urgent, scary light, but giving people a sense of purpose instead of burden is better than doom-mongering on television.

- What does your father think and could you be a positive influence on the rest of News Corporation?

I don't exclude News Corp when I say more companies should be doing this stuff. But there is interest. There's a big News Corp management conference at the end of the summer, and there'll be a dedicated session on climate change. So it's on the agenda.

- Is there another company you admire for what it's doing about climate change, and how they communicate their green credentials?

In terms of thought leadership, BP, and as communicators I think they've been effective. People recognise this is a part of what they stand for. But, of course, it's a more complex issue for an energy company. For us, the trick is to be frank about actions the business is taking. Our challenge is household consumption, but we have to put it in perspective. Set-top box power consumption is less than 0.5 per cent of energy use in the home, so it's very small. But that's the biggest part of our extended footprint and we're trying to reduce it by 50 per cent. It's a long journey, but we are gathering momentum.

- Do you think this green movement is a fad, or will it become a bigger issue in the future?

There's so much jargon about this stuff - sustainability indexes, corporate social responsibility and so on - and in the past few years there's been enormous pressure on the processes and programmes businesses go through, but not on impact. The jargon and creeping bureaucracy of CSR isn't necessarily a bad thing - you need a framework that people understand -but this is about action, not publishing a CSR report and ticking a box.

- Is the media industry taking the issue seriously enough?

In the media business, the thinking tends to be about what messages are broadcast as opposed viewers' actual behaviour. Electronic media is a low-impact activity, but that doesn't mean you can't make a difference. In fact, it's that long tail of companies that don't have much impact for whom it should be more straightforward. It just takes a bit of effort, some straightforward thinking and making some hard choices. But really it's about imagination. You have to ask yourself: what do you want your company to become?