We go behind the scenes with Envision Virgin Racing, the Formula E team aiming to be the ‘greenest team on the greenest grid’
He may not have been part of the original speaker line-up, but when Michael E. Mann was enthusiastically summoned to the stage at the DS Virgin Racing Innovation Summit in New York (by none other than Sir Richard Branson), he detected another high-profile opportunity to spread the word about climate change and the perilous position we find ourselves in.
As one of the foremost climate scientists and communicators on the planet, Mann is used to such assignments. Indeed he relishes them. But that impromptu speech in New York just over three years ago instigated a special relationship between Mann and the Formula E team that is positioning itself as “the greenest team on the greenest grid”.
During the subsequent three years, the team has rebranded from DS Virgin Racing to Envision Virgin Racing following its acquisition by the Chinese renewable energy firm, but its philosophy has remained the same.
In fact, its mission is clear; a sustainability movement first, and a sports team second.
“It was a little nerve-wracking,” Mann says of his Innovation Summit experience, “but Richard and the other people there like what I have to say. The following year the team asked me to be part of a panel and since then I’ve been participating in panel events, going to races and trying to get the word out through social media.”
He tells The Sustainability Report: “It’s exciting to be part of it. I see my job these days as communicating about climate change, its impacts and the solutions to policymakers and the public at large. There are lots of ways to do that but, as a sports fan, this is one of the most enjoyable.”
Mann was one of a number of high-profile speakers participating at Envision Virgin Racing’s online event earlier this week, the Race Against Climate Change, which is named after the team’s flagship sustainability programme.
In a week where the Formula E 2019/20 season recommenced following a Covid-19-enforced break (with six races in 10 days) it’s testament to the team that climate change – and highlighting climate challenges and solutions through its active communications platform – is at the forefront of its thinking despite a gruelling and complex sequence of races to plan for as well.
“We don’t have to do that, but that’s our purpose,” says Sylvain Filippi, the managing director of the team. “Race Against Climate Change is a huge thing that we’re doing that no other team is doing. We have many people working on it as a company and we want to use the Formula E platform and our share of voice within that to talk about climate change and solutions. I want to talk about solutions all the time.”
Electric mobility is one of those solutions, and the raison d’être of Formula E from day one has been to showcase the viability and fun of electric cars to a wide audience. But even within a wider competition that has sustainability as one of its key performance metrics, Filippi is adamant that Envision Virgin Racing should stand out in the crowd.
The independence the team has, he says, comes from the fact that it is not directly associated with a specific car manufacturer, although it is currently working very closely with Audi. Since being acquired by Envision, renewable energy has become a big focus and, indeed, that investment in 100% renewables has helped the team achieve carbon neutrality, becoming the first in Formula E to achieve such a feat.
During its Race Against Climate Change virtual event, which featured talks from Arsenal defender and climate change advocate Héctor Bellerín and UN ambassador Aidan Gallagher, Envision Virgin Racing revealed that it has been certified as “PAS 2060 carbon neutral” by the Carbon Trust.
PAS 2060 is the only internationally-recognised standard for carbon neutrality, according to the Carbon Trust, and is based on the quantification, reduction and offsetting of greenhouse gas emissions.
A 69% recycling rate, the establishment of a staff bike-to-work scheme, and a “zero tolerance policy” around single-use plastics and red meat at events helped the team achieve the standard – a process Filippi (below) describes as a “very stringent programme”.
“We had two people working full-time doing this,” he explains. “They went through the process of identifying the impact we were having on the world and trying to minimise emissions in every single way, and quantify the emissions we can’t do anything about and offset that via the gold standard.”
A Kenya-based Aqua Clara Water Filter Scheme, which enables communities to purify water rather than bottle it, was chosen by the team to offset its unavoidable emissions. The project is estimated to reduce 2.4 million tonnes of carbon emissions annually.
Filippi adds: “This is literally a zero compromise programme. It’s the highest you can get – we asked the Carbon Trust to make it as hard as possible for us. It’s an ongoing process and we have to improve every year. If every company did that millions of tonnes of carbon would be saved.”
Accelerating the movement is one of the primary concerns of Filippi, a self-confessed electric car nut. But he caveats that the team’s platform is only as valuable as the success it experiences on the track. Luckily for Filippi and his colleagues, Envision Virgin Racing has been one of the most successful teams in Formula E, having recorded three top-three season finishes since the electric car racing series started in 2014.
The first race back in Berlin this week following the extended break brought a podium finish as Sam Bird came third, and continued success, Filippi stresses, is crucial for the team’s credibility and profile.
“I spend a lot of time making sure we’re the best team we can be because, ultimately, when I say that Formula E is a great communication and marketing platform it’s no use if we just go round and round in circles,” he says. “I want to win. In sport there’s a direct correlation between where you finish and share of voice – and thankfully, we’ve been on the podium quite often up until now.”
Filippi says this was encapsulated by a “slam dunk of a weekend” in New York during the 2016/17 season when the Innovation Summit was hosted and the team won both races during a double-header. The team’s continued focus on climate change, and the increased amount of content it produces around the topic, has helped Envision Virgin Racing to “double” its fanbase over the past few months, Filippi states.
As a commercial proposition, however, it’s still a sports property that’s finding its feet, says commercial director James Mercer, adding that since Envision took a controlling stake in the organisation two years ago, it has focused most of its time crafting a clear message and identity.
While the general consensus is that brands are becoming more keen to align with teams, events or causes that are purpose-driven, Mercer explains that it’s a concept that is still not widely acknowledged in the sport sponsorship space.
According to Mercer, Environ Virgin Racing’s position at the intersection of sport, sustainability and entertainment has made it challenging to fit its proposition within the traditional sport sponsorship model. There’s also a challenge when articulating the financial rewards brands can expect by aligning with a purpose such as climate action, he adds.
“In the old days, you could say that the value of an activation was worth £20m because we’ve had research houses evaluate it. That doesn’t necessarily come with a purpose-driven agenda, which is a slightly intangible thing,” Mercer explains. “There are brands that get it, but somehow we need to measure value or demonstrate more examples of how it’s worked for brands.
“Brands want to make money, and we have to show that by investing in this purpose-driven initiative it’s going to have a knock-on effect to selling products and services.”
Two brands that do “get it” are Harley-Davidson and Teijin who recently became commercial partners of the team. The former has aligned to further showcase its vision of “leading the electrification of motorcycles”, reinforced by its 2027 goal of delivering a portfolio of electric two-wheel vehicles.
The latter – a chemical company from Japan – wants to be “part of the electric vehicles story” and “aligned with an organisation focused on the future”, says Mercer. The former Lawn Tennis Association executive’s next ambition is to partner with more “fast-moving consumer goods” brands who may not be traditionally associated with motorsport, but are in a good position to help Envision Virgin Racing amplify its messaging around its Race Against Climate Change programme.
Objectives and actions
Events and policy are two of the main pillars of the Race Against Climate Change initiative, and Filippi reveals that research will become a major part of the programme going forward. But instead of creating “100-page reports that no one reads”, the team will simplify the message via bite-sized content and provide a platform for its panel of experts, which it has dubbed “friends of Race Against Climate Change”.
“We are the platform, but we are not the experts,” Filippi acknowledges. “We get the real experts to talk about this stuff because climate science is always changing. We established Race Against Climate Change in series three (2016/17), but only in the last year have we really structured it properly with branding, objectives and actions. It’s only going to grow.”
As one of those experts, Mann is convinced that the combination of sport’s entertainment quality and expertise from the climate science community can engage a “large and reachable group of people”.
Sport, he says, “plays to our deepest instincts” when it comes to optimism and “fighting the good fight”, which can be used as useful analogies for fighting climate change. Mann adds that, too often, adapting behaviours to become more sustainable in our everyday lives is framed as a sacrifice, but should be repositioned as expressing creativity. Something, he says, Formula E has done well.
“Many of the things that we enjoy and love are still going to be available and we can feel good about them,” Mann says. “If the event we’re watching is not burning fossil fuels we can take satisfaction that we’re part of something bigger.”
He adds: “People who witness Formula E, in my experience, become converts because you’ve got the traditional vibe of car racing but it speaks to something bigger – it’s about making that transition to a sustainable world.”
Filippi agrees having experienced first-hand the evolution of Formula E from niche motorsport to one of the most popular.
“Electric cars are now scary on these road tracks, and that’s good. They have to be scary,” he enthuses. “I’m getting a lot of calls and CVs on my desk from young drivers who now want to go straight to Formula E, not Formula 1. They have a passion for the planet and a passion for electric cars.
“I work with a bunch of universities, and the younger the students are, the higher the proportion want to end up in Formula E. There’s a tidal wave coming and the next 5-10 years will be amazing.”
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