What do different groups bring to supporting sustainability and how has this changed over the last ten years?

January 26, 2015

 

At the end of January I was privileged to deliver a keynote speech alongside Jonathan Porritt and Dr Alice Owen to celebrate Leeds University’s Sustainability Research Institute (SRI) attaining ten years.  It was a pleasure to prepare for this occasion and I decided to write this short blog to summarise my key points.  The event focused on how different groups engage with each other to support the move towards ever-greater sustainability.  With my background I majored on retail, consumers and related stakeholders.

 

I was lucky in 2007 to be appointed as Walmart’s first Head of Corporate Sustainability in the UK, for the Asda brand.  In that role I created the first Corporate Sustainability Function and had responsibility for strategy, policy, engagement and innovation.  In particular, as well as leading the move into adaptation, I created the UK’s largest supplier collaboration programme on resource efficiency as well as the world’s largest standing sustainability insight panel.  These remain the largest to this day.

 

Looking back over 10 years of the SRI, the world is in a very different place now than in 2005.  In 2005 even finding an academic course on sustainability was tough, there was no culture of CSR inside most corporates and investors were certainly not interested.  CSR Teams were tolerated (just) but fast forward ten years to 2015 and every major corporate has a CSR function and a sustainability strategy.  Every University has a range of courses and professionals with an academic background are not uncommon anymore.

 

To my mind, retail sustainability started in 2005 and with Walmart’s Sustainability 360 speech.  What they did was to show that a low cost, low margin company could ‘afford’ to care.  This is the year that it started to become mainstream and a dedicated band of people acted as disruptive innovators inside these companies.

 

The first objectives were around efficiency and questioning established ways of working, asking why inefficiency was accepted and waste was everyday.  It was not about products or the customer offer initially but saving cash, or good business.  The most successful teams did not talk carbon nor environment but cash saving and efficiency.  These first five years were almost exclusively about operational improvements and millions of pounds were saved.

 

In 2010 after much of the low hanging fruit had been picked many companies had to refresh their approach.  Climate change was becoming real and evident as well as energy and resource scarcity and competition for land and food.  The word ‘risk’ started to emerge and be linked to sustainability in Boardrooms.  The focus of activity moved into products and supply chains and evolved to include ever increasing social or community activity too. 

 

Sourcing from Africa became a key pledge in the Millennium Development Goals as well as activity to support women and communities, though in the UK locally sourced products bucked this trend and still continue to grow in popularity.  This alongside the increasing need to spend not save made sustainability ever more complex and so run the risk of being sidelined right at the time it was needed.

 

Collaboration became, and still is, essential across the entire supply chain.  Small and medium sized companies represent the biggest risk and the largest opportunity together but these complex sustainability ideals can be hard to energise without dedicated expert resource.  Asda responded with the Sustain & Save Exchange (SSE), which I created and ran until June last year.  Tesco operates the Tesco Supplier Network and M&S and McDonald’s, amongst others, have their own activity.  The SSE provides a space for collaboration on common challenges and to share learnings without issue from anti-trust or other concerns.  This cannot be underestimated in its impact now but particularly into the future.

 

Customers, believe it or not, do care even in cash strapped times!  In 2010 when I was tasked with delivering Asda’s new sustainability strategy I wanted to embed customers at its very heart.  The challenge was that insight was patchy and often contradictory.  To cut through this I created the ‘Everyday Experts’, over 7,000 normal people who are experts in the everyday not in sustainability.  This long term study clearly told us five things – Green is normal, I expect to be greener in the future, It cannot cost more, Green should be easier to find and I set the agenda.  This showed that with the right strategy in place a competitive advantage could be gained.  This study continues to this day by Asda and in conjunction with Leeds University, with over 20,000 members and is now the largest standing sustainability panel in the world.

 

Financiers and investors are more of a work in progress.  They like cost savings but not complex activity.  They like risk mitigation strategies but highlighting too much risk can also be a brave thing to do.  Action such as the Banking Environment Initiative is crucial to accelerate the knowledge of investors and move them to a point when they are demanding ever greater action by companies.

 

So to summarise, to my mind collaboration is crucial.  Its only through collaboration that we can finally get doors on shop floor fridges or energy efficient LEDs as standard across factories.  We all need to work together to create the space for sustainability to flourish, particularly in economically uncertain times.  We need to keep challenging our favourite brands to go further and faster.  And government needs to support investment by creating policies that don’t chop and change but create clear frameworks into which companies can invest.

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