Former Ikea boss Steve Howard: Big businesses must go all-in on sustainability

Ikea's former chief sustainability officer Steve Howard has urged today's business leaders to be bold and set 100% targets to achieve a sustainable future in the face of rising global megatrends.

After leading Ikea's sustainability team for six years, Howard now chairs the We Mean Business Coalition. Image: Bloomberg

After leading Ikea's sustainability team for six years, Howard now chairs the We Mean Business Coalition. Image: Bloomberg

Speaking at Bloomberg’s Sustainable Business Summit in London last week (8 November), Howard – who led the retailer's sustainability team from 2011 to 2017 – warned that companies which fail to set bold targets are at risk of becoming “irrelevant” to consumers and investors.

“Real change is hard, so doing what you did last year and doing it slightly better is what we tend to do in larger businesses,” Howard said. “But the power of going 100% all-in, from a target point of view, is breath-taking. When you set a 100% target, you create absolute clarity on what the future looks like.”

Howard, who notably led Ikea’s work around stocking 100% energy-efficient LED lighting, argued that the importance of going “all-in” on sustainability was one of the three “defining” megatrends of the past century – along with population growth and digitisation.

These megatrends, Howard said, have set the business community up to lead “big, disruptive change” in the face of climate challenges, resource scarcity and social inequality.

“You have to remember the role we have in this world where change is now faster than ever before - where we can see climate change, resource scarcity, inequality and the role of business in question; where we’ve got hyper-digitisation and hyper-urbanisation; where change is the new normal,” he said.

The speech came as Howard, who was also instrumental in Ikea’s initial decision to first publish a sustainability report and strategy, reached a milestone of one year in his role as chair of the We Mean Business coalition. The coalition consists of seven international non-profits – BSR, CDP, Ceres, The B Team, The Prince of Wales Corporate Leaders Group, WBCSD, and Howard’s own The Climate Group – and works to encourage businesses to tackle climate challenges.

A new era for capitalism

Detailing how companies can adapt to an era of change, Howard went on to emphasise the importance of brand purpose, claiming that it took a “lot of soul-searching” during his time at Ikea for the business to become a purpose-led brand. The furniture retailer notably refused to publicly disclose its sustainability information without C-suite buy-in.

“If you go back 10 years, people were just interested in 'stuff' – which is a gross simplification, but a defining factor,” Howard said. “Now, people are more defined by experience and by purpose, meaning that peoples’ relationships with brands have fundamentally changed. People will look to each other and to their communities to validate the brands, and brands are aware that nobody owns the customer.”

Howard noted that the trend towards purpose-led business was driven by digitisation, which makes sustainability information publicly accessible and has enabled consumers and the media to hold companies to account in new ways.

“Nobody owns the customer – you have a constantly-earned relationship with the customer in today’s world which is fundamentally different than 10 years ago,” he added. “Reputations are hard-won and hard-earned based on the real experience of society, and they’re gone like that if you’re not careful.”

Howard’s talk came off the back of several pieces of research which revealed that millennials – who will account for 75% of the UK’s working population by 2030 – want to buy from companies that have a purpose beyond their products and operations.

Communications agency FleishmanHillard Fishburn (FHF), for example, found that 93% of the millennial generation want to buy from companies that have purpose, sustainability and environmental stewardship built into their ethos. The findings echo those of Deloitte, which revealed in 2016 that 56% of millennials will exclude companies that are not operating sustainably from their shopping lists, while 49% will refuse to work for companies that go against their personal ethics.

Sarah George  


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