When it comes to tackling environmental issues the large corporates seem to have the edge, but for broker Ray Johnson thinking globally is about acting locally. Helen Yates reports

Independent Insurance Services (IIS) might not have slick, countrywide marketing campaigns at its disposal, but it is quickly getting a name for its eco-friendly insurance solutions. And much of this is down to the zeal and drive of its proprietor Ray Johnson, very much a man on a mission.

Johnson’s an old pro when it comes to the environment. He’s been championing green initiatives at IIS for years, even before climate change was acknowledged as a major global threat, and certainly before it held any sway on political and boardroom agendas.

Advice at the time for companies that wanted to adopt more sustainable practices was pretty thin on the ground. He dolefully admits the company was unlikely to have been totally carbon neutral until 1994. A feat by anyone else’s standards.

IIS is one of the first UK brokers to offer discounts to homeowners based on how environmentally-friendly their property is.

Its new offering, Ecocover, is underwritten by Ecclesiastical. “We offer varying levels of discounts if they fulfil various criteria, from having double glazing, purchasing ‘A’ rated appliances (fridges, washing machines and so on) and energy-saving light bulbs, to installing wind turbines and solar panels,” explains Johnson.

Any savings made via the scheme are promptly reinvested, or ‘recycled’, back into the environment.

Offering financial incentives for customers who adopt eco-friendly initiatives is to be applauded. With worldwide Kyoto targets and the UK’s own ambitious bid to cut carbon emissions by 60% by 2050, a growing number of UK insurers and brokers have begun offering their customers financial incentives to go green, such as reduced premiums for hybrid cars.

While Johnson welcomes such a change, saying “it can only be a good thing”, he does question whether all are genuine efforts to reduce carbon emissions, or if some are simply clever marketing ploys.

My interview with Johnson came just three days after an earthquake, measuring 4.3 on the Richter scale, damaged hundreds of properties in the Kent seaside town of Folkestone, where IIS is based.

As the claims for structural damage flooded in from the many policyholders with damaged properties, Johnson could be forgiven for wanting to postpone the meeting. But his passion for all things environmental was not to be shaken by a mere earthquake, if you’ll excuse the pun.

Spending an hour with Johnson can be exhausting as his enthusiasm and energy outstretch that of other mere mortals. He had just run his seventh London marathon and was working tirelessly to deal with numerous earthquake claims.

And that’s before the other commitments were listed off: organising talks and seminars on environ- mental issues; heading up the local chamber of commerce and putting on charitable fundraising events. So how does he find the time, let alone the energy?

“You make time,” he says. “It sounds harsh, but people have to focus. Forget your lunch break and do something more rewarding.”

Having just moved office to a larger space in a Victorian property close to the Lees, Folkestone’s cliff-top promenade, Johnson was eager to give a quick tour and point out some of the more ambitious energy-saving plans he had. These include painting the entire building in eco-friendly paint and installing solar panels on the roof. If the council would let him he’d also erect a wind turbine to catch some of the strong winds coming in off the Channel.

But it’s not just the grand plans that make a difference, he was at pains to emphasise. Simple things, like switching off lights and machinery that aren’t in use, using both sides of sheets of paper, recycling and offering staff incentives to save energy are some of the little things that have made a very big difference.

Even staff transportation is tackled. He buys bicycles for employees who can cycle into work, and encourages more efficient journeys by car; ensuring the logistics of making just one journey to two or more meetings in the same area, have been properly thought out.

Helping the company on the road to achieving a carbon neutral status was the decision to buy seven acres of Kent woodland in 2002.

“We are the first ever known broker in the UK to buy a piece of woodland – and we’ll buy more, cost willing,” says Johnson.

The company also sponsors school trips to Wildlife Trust sites, which is part of his goal to better educate others on issues such as bio-diversity and energy efficiency.

And it’s not just the local community he’s targeting. For a number of years IIS has encouraged its clients to achieve more sustainable, less polluting ways of working.

And there’s plenty of incentive from the clients’ perspective. Johnson works with underwriters to obtain discounts for those with a good environmental track record. Such discounts are obviously attractive, but savings can be gained in other areas too. And often, it’s just down to a simple change.

Johnson explains that one client, a Kent-based engineering firm, was recycling its wood and paper but none of its scrap metal – something he encouraged it to start doing.

“Now they get paid for the metal they recycle,” he explains.

He has also approached a number of well-known national insurers, pointing out where they are wasting too much paper. “One of them was producing 12-page renewal notices – one for the broker and one for the client. We suggested they reduce that and they did. Now they’re down to one page.”

It does seem surprising that even the large insurers are sitting up and paying attention. But IIS is certificated to internationally-recognised best practice and environmental standards, and this does bestow a certain level of authority onto the company.

Its ISO 9001 and ISO 14001 certificates, issued by the International Organisation for Standardisation (ISO), have set a precedent. According to Johnson, IIS is the first UK broker to gain certification to ISO 14001, but he predicts this will grow as stakeholder pressure grows.

“In the future some companies may insist on a supplier being certificated to ISO 14001,” says Johnson, adding that the company’s environmental efforts already provide a competitive edge.

“Other eco-friendly companies want to buy from an eco-friendly broker. At the moment that might only be a small amount of our clients but it will grow.”

The positive recognition, through numerous awards (winner of the South East England Development Agency Award; winner of the Environment Award for Kent Business and winner of the Tidy Britain Gold Awards among others) can’t hurt either.

IIS surely had a reputation verging on the saintly. “It’s just a case of doing the right thing,” says Johnson modestly.

“If you know you are doing something wrong, you should change the way things are handled to improve the environment and in turn demonstrate this to staff and stakeholders alike.”

For Johnson, it’s also about rewarding those who have, like him, been doing the right thing. “It’s time for those people to be rewarded – for us to focus on their insurance needs and to offer them a discount if they fulfil various criteria.”