How She Leads is a regular feature spotlighting influential women in sustainable business.
Meet Beth Colleton. She is responsible for developing and implementing NBCUniversal’s corporate social responsibility strategy. Her areas of focus include environmental sustainability, diversity, philanthropy and social initiatives. Since 2008, she has served as Vice President of Green is Universal, an initiative which focuses on the strategic incorporation of sustainability across the entire organization.
Here, Colleton speaks about how her team is implementing a range of sustainability initiatives at NBCUniversal.
Maya Albanese: How did you move into your current role?
Beth Colleton: When Comcast bought NBCUniversal, the company started looking for areas of growth and opportunity. Comcast had a history of pro-social engagement, and we wanted to use our new far-reaching assets in entertainment and media to inform and engage the public around social issues. We had great success with Green Is Universal and wanted to see how we could expand upon that to drive change on other topics. I was the head of Green Is Universal, and prior, worked on corporate social responsibility at the NFL across a wide spectrum of subject matter.
Albanese: How did you incorporate sustainability into the NFL business?
Colleton: When I started at the NFL, sustainability was in its infancy, but we realized the unique position that the company was in to drive the conversation around social issues -- whether it was diversity, education or environment. I was there to help them create the sustainability function and execute it across all of the business units.
Albanese: Is there a story behind why you are passionate about sustainability?
Colleton: There is something really exciting about using business best practices and assets to drive awareness around social issues. It’s like you are already starting on-base. You have the attention of a large number of people, and there are resources to apply. My interest in sustainability comes from recognizing that we’re all going to continue to be producers and consumers, but it doesn’t mean that we can’t continue to move our communities and our countries forward in a more sustainable way. There is so much excitement, creativity, invention and innovation that can lead to growth. Sustainability doesn’t need to be a harness. It is provocative and it’s inspiring people to move forward rather than just being an issue of regulatory compliance that restricts or inhibits growth.
Albanese: Why do media companies have a crucial role to play in driving social and environmental change?
Colleton: As a media company, we do play a different kind of role in this space. While we’re constantly looking at improving our footprint, our consumer interface is really our best asset. We have access to hundreds of millions of people in any given month through all the outlets in our portfolio. We have the platforms to educate and inform many specific types of demographics. You get traction only when you talk to people in an authentic way about things that they really care about. We call this a “customized value proposition.” It’s not what you’re selling; it’s what they’re buying. You can’t talk about sustainability in one general way or people will just tune out. For example, CNBC brought Green Is Universal to life by talking to their investor community about renewable energy portfolios and resource availability. For MSNBC, the message is bended toward politics and policy. For Oxygen, it is about lifestyle, and how folks can go green in their everyday lives.
Albanese: How does your position fit into the corporate structure?
Colleton: We have an all-encompassing Corporate Sustainability department that works across departments on issues of shared importance, and to make NBCUniversal a company leader in this space. Since we work across a portfolio that contains more than 50 on-air, online and experiential brands, the real opportunity is working hand-in-hand with each of them to find where the traction lies with each audience. We almost act as in-house consultants to our brands. For example, we’ll look at Telemundo, whose priority message to their constituency is around educational, civic and economic advancement. The process of bringing that to life will be very different from customized messages for each local news market across the US. It’s highly flexible and varied, which unleashes much more opportunity than taking one, overarching approach.
Albanese: Do you have a team that works with you on sustainability?
Colleton: We have a team that was designed to encompass a combination of skill sets. We have a business strategist, dedicated energy director, marketing person, digital director, engineer and a producer who works specifically on corporate responsibility.
Albanese: What would you say are your top three responsibilities?
Colleton: We focus on the conversations with consumers, our own operations and footprint, and on how we can pull every one of our employees into this process. We don’t want to silo this function but rather make sure that every topic is being driven by our employees’ expertise, because they are excelling in very specific areas of the business. We have an employee recognition program called “Eco Gem” whereby we give awards to our employees for excelling on sustainability within their functions. Eco Gem also fosters leadership among our mid-career professionals and gives them an opportunity to show their managers that they’re using creative solutions to look forward. It advances corporate sustainability and simultaneously helps Human Resources to see who the real movers and shakers are within the company.
Albanese: How would you rate top-down support for sustainability?
Colleton: We have really strong support, because sustainability is really good for the business. We are embedding sustainability into our DNA -- how we build, design and operate from the get-go. For example, from the conception of building a new amusement park ride or a new movie studio, we’re incorporating energy efficiency into the design.
Albanese: Do you see a pull for this from your audiences?
Colleton: It’s interesting how much the consumer conversation has evolved. “Green” is now considered mainstream, and the audience understands how to integrate it into their lifestyles and purchases. Now, they’re asking the right questions and looking for the right product attributes. In less than a decade of working in this space, it’s been amazing to see how much it has become embedded into our thinking.
Albanese: “The More You Know” is one of your well-known campaigns, but what are other ways that you’re integrating these messages into programming?
Colleton: The messaging really comes from the brands themselves, because they understand what their audiences want. In a week in April around Earth Day, messaging is incorporated across each brand. We recently released the movie "The Lorax" based on the Dr. Seuss classic that has a strong environmental theme. The movie became a great tool for us to talk to young people about the planet. We also have a show called "Parenthood" that depicts a regular American family and allows us to talk to audiences about issues like race, cancer, infertility, disabilities, etc. The show has covered a lot of sensitive social issues, always on subject matter that the audience cares about. The dialogue has to be authentic.
Albanese: TV and film production is incredibly resource-intensive. How are you working to reduce your footprint in this area?
Colleton: Our strategy has to be unique. We must empower the individual crews to make their footprints smaller. We set annual green goals that go across the board for all of our production crews, and we’re proud to say that they’ve all passed their goals each year within the 90th percentile. Filming is an organic, creative process; no two days are ever the same. So, we created a series of "green guides" for our productions, and for our sourcing and procurement teams. We also partner with other studios to work and with the Producers Guild of America to create "green vendor guides." As films are made in different communities, they can share this valuable information among themselves about a particular filming location.
Albanese: What environmental initiatives is NBCUniversal working on?
Colleton: We are always looking for ways to reduce water and energy usage across our businesses. For example, "The Lorax" was a computer-generated imaging production, and we partnered with IBM to reduce our projected energy use by over 40 percent through new cooling and cloud-based technologies. We also just implemented new virtual production technology that has allowed us to record more than 100 productions remotely, which has reduced our travel and transport impact.
Albanese: What is an obstacle you’ve overcome in your work?
Colleton: One of the challenges for any company when it comes to sustainability is how to find scalable opportunities. You can find one opportunity here and another there, but how do you grow and embed them into the entire organization? We make much better progress when we identify opportunities at the very beginning. For each theme park we create, we need to design and build it so that we can track metrics that can be taken away and applied to other projects that we work on later.
What is a continuing challenge that you face in your work?
Colleton: The challenge is to stay current, relevant and on top of trends and policies. This field twists and turns at lightning speed -- both on the innovation front and in terms of regulation. While it’s easy to get caught up in the day-to-day of tactics and operations, you’ve got to make sure you’re constantly picking up your head to capitalize on opportunities and mitigate risks.
Albanese: What advice would you give other professionals interested in working in your field?
Colleton: As I like to say, "Don’t talk to people about apples when they’re interested in oranges." You must understand the people in your system -- what they do and what they care about. To advance your company’s platform effectively, focus on understanding how sustainability can provide value to each of the stakeholders you’re dealing with and customize that proposition accordingly. To move sustainability forward, you have to break it down into key priorities and develop strategies that mobilize the individuals and separate business units and advance shared goals.
Photo of Beth Colleton courtesy of NBCUniversal.