Taking the road to sustainability


  • Columns
  • Monday, 26 Oct 2015

Formula E, or battery-powered racing, has the power to do for the electric car what Formula 1 did for the sports car — drive demand by making such vehicles cool. — 123rf.com

In the modern world, there can be no profit with a well-defined purpose. And what better purpose can there be than a commitment to a greener and better future?

Last year, our team at Virgin put the pedal to the metal and sped into the world of electric-car racing.

Right after painting our big red logo on two single-driver Formula E battery-powered cars, we launched Virgin Racing (now DS Virgin Racing) with an important mission in mind: Change the way the world views sustainability.

In our opinion, green is sexy, and Formula E racing illustrates that idea nicely.

As anyone who’s been to a Formula E race (I’ve attended races in Miami and London) can attest, the roar of fast cars coupled with the smell of clean air instead of noxious fumes can be electrifying. But while Formula E competitions provide a thrilling ride, racing high-performance vehicles also provides a worthwhile message: A sustainable future is well within reach.

Once our team entered Formula E, the speculation began: Was Virgin going to enter the personal electric car market?

While we’re very excited to see what electric cars can do and how they can create a better future for all of us, we have no plans (as yet!) to take on this challenge. Brands like Tesla and Toyota are doing a wonderful job.

That said, I do feel that the automotive industry is ripe for disruption — and it has been for some time. We tried shaking things up in this sector in 2000 when we launched Virgin Cars, our foray into the online auto retail business. Back then, we identified a gap in the retail market and set about revolutionising the way that cars were being sold.

That turned out to be the wrong angle, and Virgin Cars ended up shutting down just five years later.We neglected to realise that the biggest potential for disruption in the automotive industry had nothing to do with the process of selling cars, but rather with how cars were powered. Back then, we did not see that the future would be about sustainability — and that the best opportunities would be found in the development of electric cars and clean fuels.

Luckily, all was not lost from our venture.

The experience with Virgin Cars taught us something that we have incorporated into our overarching vision ever since: In the modern world, there can be no profit without a well-defined purpose.

We have launched some successful purpose-driven ventures since then. For example, most people are aware that the transportation sector is a contributor to climate change — and in fact, it’s the second-largest source of greenhouse gas emissions.

Through partnerships with companies like the carbon-recycling startup LanzaTech, our team at Virgin Atlantic is tackling this problem by developing the next generation of sustainable, commercial jet fuel.

The same spirit is fueling our non-profit efforts. At Necker Island, we’re creating a renewables-driven microgrid to power the entire island, and we’ve also established our non-profit foundation, Virgin Unite, to encourage entrepreneurs to use business as a force for good.

Since launching in 2004, Virgin Unite has supported a number of wonderful initiatives that aim to combat climate change and put the world on the path to a better future: The B Team, which is calling for a global commitment to net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050; the Carbon War Room and Rocky Mountain Institute, which are working to develop low-carbon economic innovations through market-based solutions; and the Ocean Elders group is studying the health of the world’s oceans and the crucial role they play in climate change mitigation and controlling carbon in the atmosphere.

Since we are supporting such important initiatives, it made a lot of sense for us to enter electric auto racing. We think that Formula E has the power to do for the electric car what Formula 1 did for the sports car — drive demand by making such vehicles cool.

By increasing the appeal of electric cars, the racing industry has the power to influence our future.We realise, of course, that electric cars and clean fuels are not miracle solutions for tackling climate change, but these industries are taking essential steps in the right direction.

So we hope that Virgin Racing inspires more people and businesses to embark on a journey towards sustainability. I, for one, can’t wait for the season to start in Beijing later this month! — Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate

Questions from readers will be answered in future columns. Please send them to RichardBranson@nytimes.com. Please include your name, country, e-mail address and the name of the website or publication where you read the column.

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