Businesses should focus on their ‘unique contribution to sustainability’

Business leaders need to step away from the old sustainability approach of reducing a 'little bit of everything' and must look at how their company can uniquely contribute to reducing their impact on the environment, says Kingfisher's CEO Ian Cheshire.

As Europe’s largest home improvements retailer, Kingfisher has had to look carefully at how its operations are impacting the environment and local communities, and with the use of resources worldwide outstripping supply the company has recently changed its approach to business.

According to Kingfisher, leadership for the future means having the determination to envisage new approaches ‘and take people with you’.

To achieve this, Cheshire says that businesses must stop focusing on trying to ‘solve all the problems’ and look at how they can make a unique contribution to a sustainable future.

Speaking to edie, Cheshire says: “I think a lot of the early attempts to be a sustainable business included companies saying we’ll use a bit less electricity and we’ll be a bit less wasteful – this is great but they are just the foundations of becoming a sustainable business”.

“Really focusing on what it is you can do as a company differently and not trying to solve all the problems should be the focus. For example, if you’re a heating specialist, you should try and be a world beater in helping people cut their heating bills – that’s your unique contribution”.

“Asking ‘how can I contribute?’ and ‘what can I do?’ will have a greater impact than reducing your consumption slightly. Because the more you ask what is our unique contribution, the more likely it is you’re going to find a useful, proactive influence and then develop it”.

Realising a business’s contribution will often come from reviewing the current business model and accepting that the future, along with resource prices, is becoming more and more volatile, says Cheshire.

“If you sit down and think about what supports your business model today and how might that change in the future, where resources are scarcer or priced differently or the situation changes, you start to quickly think about how sustainable is your current business model? And that is an uncomfortable question but a really important one for businesses to ask themselves”.

Kingfisher accepted that changing its business model was necessary and has recently launched Net Positive, the company’s new approach to doing business that will look to minimise its impact.

The new plan focuses on four areas of the business; timber, energy, innovation and communities, where it believes it has the greatest impact.

A key component to the company’s new business model was acknowledging the opportunities available through sustainable challenges.

“Companies need to think about what opportunities might come from looking at their business model, where they can find new business, how they can create new growth and by thinking very hard about where the future is going and therefore how does my business stay around for the next 40 years – I think you very quickly start to put yourself into that challenge territory”.

A common question asked by smaller corporations is where do we start? And Cheshire believes, as a retailer, that you need to begin with your product range.

“Ultimately, retailers buy and sell products so this should be your key way in. So the process starts at the very beginning when you’re thinking about what product do I want, what type of product, why, and then going through the supplier process – do we understand where this product comes from and what are the impacts?

“I think it’s the mentality from the outset that says we only want to sell something that is pretty exceptional because in the current world those are the only things that will sell and that’s where the value is”, Cheshire adds.

Engaging with the consumer and providing them with information about the sustainability of a company’s product range can have a positive effect on sales and this is where opportunity can arise from understanding each step in the supply chain.

“The more we can tell the story about the product, the more we know about it, the more we can share with the customer and the more likely they will buy the product” says Cheshire.

Along with consumer engagement, the drive for behavioural change within a business’s workforce has quickly become a priority.

“It’s almost a question of education inside the organisation [as well as outside]. Leadership is important, but I think there is a need to get people at the sharp end of any commercial organisation to talk a bit differently and that’s not a process that is going to happen overnight.

“[And to get the workforce on board] I think you start by creating a default switch that says this is the way we do business. If you embed a strong business model it will be embedded forever – [staff] may come and go but the culture remains, so if you can set into the cultural default mind set then you can live with the turnover”.

Ian Cheshire is the CEO of Kingfisher, Europe’s largest home improvement retail group and the third largest in the world.

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