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Tuesday, 7 February 2012

Dirty truckers need a reputation turn around

By Maita Soukup, Account manager, ReputationInc

Despite being regarded as the lifeblood of many industries and the backbone of transportation in the UK, the road freight sector is never far from a green politicians’ cheap shot about oil dependence and industry’s resistance to a low carbon economy. 

I was reminded of this last week in Brussels as I listened on while a senior member of the European Commission’s Transportation Cabinet lambasted a room full of fleet owners for their failure to act definitively to reduce CO2 emissions.

The audience, full of success stories and innovative programmes to “go green”, was unsurprisingly disheartened by the Commission’s robust dismissal of its programmes as “piecemeal” and “not strategic”.
So why is it that when it comes to sustainable business, certain sectors’ reputations have been buoyed by their response to the low carbon agenda, while others continue to be painted as fossil-fueling consuming dinosaurs, unwilling or unable to adapt to a new world of declining oil reserves and ambitious carbon reduction targets?

In a word, reputationmanagement.  Industries must confront their not-so-pretty reputation legacies in order to grow, maintain favour with stakeholders, and ultimately maintain their licence to operate. 
Let’s look at how other sectors have tackled similar regulatory challenges, and then conclude with some advice for how road hauliers can think differently about their reputation in order to secure greater understanding and support from government and environmental activists.

Supermarkets & the environment
 Savvy retailers across Europe were amongst the first to recognise post-Copenhagen that they would be on the chopping block once public concern about the environment began to influence consumer purchasing decisions.  While such a shift has yet to be documented, Marks & Spencer’s Plan A is a shining example of a genuine, well-thought through initiative that positions the business as part of the solution, not contributing to the problem.  From simple operational changes to wider supply chain commitments, all initiatives in Plan A makes good business sense as well  as demonstrating low carbon leadership. 

The alcohol industry & binge drinking
The alcohol sector is perpetually under attack from public health officials and NGOs bemoaning a culture of binge drinking.  In the UK TheWine and Spirits Trade Association, working with the support of the country’s alcohol makers, recently side-stepped further regulatory intervention by contributing proactively to the government’s Responsibility Deal. 
The Responsibility Deal aims to tackle public health concerns without heavily regulating industry, and was only possible because alcohol producers were willing to acknowledge their role in the problem, and to become part of the solution.  A commitment to further self-regulation, including tightening marketing restrictions, continuing to fund successful Drinkaware campaigns, and improve server training initiatives all resulted in an alcohol sector which is no longer a scapegoat for politicians trying to explain away binge drinking concerns.

So, what can road hauliers learn from their retail and alcohol counterparts?

First, act early.  The EU is expected to tax trucks based on their carbon output in the next five years.  To avoid this punitive tax policy, fleet industry associations should be looking to find their own version of M&S’s Plan A.  Agreeing a self-imposed CO2 reduction target that is feasible for the industry to meet, would demonstrate goodwill to regulators, and put fleets on the front foot when it comes time to lobby against any crippling taxes the EU might suggest down the road.  Like Plan A, a shared commitment to reducing CO2 emissions in fleets will result in cost savings for the sector.

Second, formalise informal practices and commitments.  The alcohol sector was already following the majority of commitments it made in the Responsibility Deal long before Andrew Lansley took up his role as Health Minister.  When the time came to collaborate with Government, the trade association had a number of ongoing initiatives to package up and present them back to government as an industry-driven “vision” for responsible drinking.  Road hauliers must now do the same thing, and at an EU level.  For instance, the UK the Freight Transport Association’s LogisticsCarbon Reduction Scheme is already yielding successful outcomes, as are programmes across the continent aimed at reducing empty drive time, improving fuel economy, and training drivers to use minimum energy when on the road.  Collecting these shining examples, and presenting them back to the European Commission, will prove the sector’s willingness, and possibly open up new channels for collaboration or funding.

Finally, stop being defensive.  Given the amount of finger pointing and scapegoating the trucking sector endures, it is little surprise that road hauliers may have developed a feeling of healthy animosity when dealing with regulators.  However, as the alcohol and retail experiences demonstrate, changing your reputation with policy makers calls for re-aligning the industry’s aims and objectives to match those of the public good.  In the case of fleets, this means translating business objectives, like reducing fuel bills, into shared objectives, like reducing overall carbon emissions. 

Whether battling fat taxes, fuel taxes, or marketing restrictions, demonstrating shared commitments and setting out timelines to deliver on those commitments is a necessity for any industry looking to improve its reputation and survive periods of heavy regulation and market change. 

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