Speaking at a Carbon Trust event in London on Wednesday (3 October), the chairman of Barclays  Bank UK and Debenhams and former chief-executive of Kingfisher, Sir Ian Cheshire, called on sustainability professionals to be “persistent” in efforts to embed new mindsets and ways of working within businesses.

Against a backdrop of heightened consumer concerns on the ethics of business, Cheshire called on businesses to place themselves at the centre of spectrum that would change consumer perspectives on private sector actions.

Cheshire outlined his personal “distrust” for companies that were greenwashing in an attempt to win over sceptical consumers and stakeholders. However, the former British Retail Consortium chair also warned of the damage that “greenhush” can cause.

“The thing I really distrust and dislike, is any form of greenwash,” Cheshire said. “what we’ve increasingly seen is that this has to be for real. If it’s not real, you’re doing more harm than good.

“At the other end of the spectrum is ‘greenhush’. There are companies doing brilliant things, but they don’t talk about it and don’t put the money behind it. I think between those two extremes of the spectrum; most businesses have a real opportunity to make a big contribution. At a time where business is being attacked for its lack of values and responsibility, it’s a moral imperative for business to do this.”

While more tech-savvy consumers are less likely to be swayed by attempts of greenwash, businesses may struggle to overcome a trust deficit if they can’t accurately articulate their purpose, values and approach to sustainability.

Recent research from FleishmanHillard Fishburn (FHF) found that 80% of UK consumers have stopped using a product or service because of a company’s response to a social, cultural or political issue. The research suggests that some companies are tentative when sharing information on values as a result.

However, Cheshire notes that a lack of internal harmonisation on sustainability issues can stop progressive companies attempting to deliver tangible change from reaping reputational benefits.

Internal persistence

Cheshire has previously called on businesses to be courageous in driving the sustainability agenda. Internally, this courage translates to persistence from the sustainability team to ensure issues reach the relevant parts of the business.

“I’d say that a lot of [sustainability] jobs are occasionally miserable and occasionally thankless. The multi-faceted challenge of sustainability needs a very boring thing – sheer bloody persistence,” Cheshire said. “It is mind-numbingly boring to repeat the same phrase, but you need to do it over again.

“You’re changing the company and changing the world. I urge you to step back and look back at your contribution. If you don’t have the sheer persistence to keep doing this, the inertia that this movement is up against is massive.”

Cheshire noted that overcoming “greenhush” required complete business buy-in. While having a chief executive on-board is welcome, Cheshire warned that this could just lead to a few “CEO vanity projects”. Instead, he urged delegates to reach out to a range of senior figures within companies – notably, finance and marketing.

At Barclays, for example, sustainability projects and ideas are presented to the board and senior figures, which have taken up the role of “stewards”. Cheshire also believed that it is now easier to get marketing on board, as advertising for brand causes is easier and cheaper in a world that revolves around social media.

Fear and frameworks

In a climate where global frameworks such as the Paris Agreement, the Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures (TCFD) and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), businesses that do articulate their environmental progress can be exposed at all angles.

Cheshire called on businesses to utilise these frameworks in a way that championed a “unique proposition”, instead of “smearing” themselves across all sustainability touch-points. When he was the chief executive at Kingfisher, for example, Cheshire chose to champion sustainable timber and reducing customer energy bills as environmental projects that enabled the home improvement retailer to drive towards a leadership status.

At Barclays, Cheshire is aware of the role that green finance can play in accelerating the transition to a low-carbon economy.

Despite offering dedicate green trade loans and green consumer-facing mortgages, Barclays was still subject to protests at its latest AGM over slow progress on climate change policy. However, in 2016, the bank raised £21.1bn in finance for environmental and societal schemes.

Cheshire believes that consumers and businesses need to be aware of how they frame conversations as the private sector introduces new services and business models more aligned with environmental stewardship.

“If your message is ‘the old is bad’, you’ll not get any traction,” Cheshire added. “You have to paint an image of what we’re going to move to that is attractive and interesting and fundamentally a viable business model. When you introduce change, you will not get the warmest of welcomes. What you’ve got to show people is the opportunity of something different.”

Matt Mace

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