By Dr Dorothy Maxwell’s own admission, House of Fraser was a bit “late to the party” when it comes to corporate sustainability commitments, having only adopted an overarching CSR strategy 16 months ago, when Maxwell first stepped into the role as the company’s head of sustainability. 

The former Natural Capital Coalition executive director has endeavoured to make up for lost time during this period, integrating a fledgling CSR strategy into the core business model through a series of bold, concrete actions – the most recent being last week’s launch of the retailer’s first “green store” with high environmental standards.

The £140m BREEAM-accredited Rushden Lakes development in Northampton, which joins more than 60 House of Fraser retail outlets across the country, has ingrained sustainability in its DNA. Incorporating unique features such as an eight-metre-tall living wall home to more than 2,000 indoor plants, the store is surrounded by 200 acres of wetlands, which will be managed and protected by The Wildlife Trust.

Ahead of her appearance at edie’s Responsible Retail conference in September, Maxwell expressed her delight at the strong sustainability credentials of the Northampton store, which will boast more than 50 premium and high street brands.

“We’ve really shaped everything about the store, from its design and operation in terms of efficiency, zero waste to landfill, minimising resource use, through to linking with the nature reserves,” Maxwell said.

“At a practical store level, we’ve taken that store and really maxed it out in terms of the sustainability elements,” she said. “But it’s credible and practical too, in terms of what is relevant to a retail store in that kind of setting.” 

House of brands

The store launch represents a small but crucial building block in Maxwell and House of Fraser’s vision of a retail business built on strong sustainability foundations, a commitment which extends throughout its entire supply chain. The company’s Responsible Retailer policy contains a strict code of conduct around the responsible sourcing of products from across the globe, including high-risk areas such as India and Turkey.

This task is somewhat complicated by a highly complex supply chain encompassing House of Fraser’s own-branded products, which spans a wide range of goods including clothing, home furnishings, gifts, cosmetics, footwear and food. Whether it is ensuring plastic products are clear of microbeads or that homeware picture frames are finished with sustainable timber, a great deal of time and resources are dedicated to guarantee responsibility objectives are met across all of these categories.

And on top of its own house brand policy, House of Fraser strives to work together with a plethora of in-store brands, including the likes of Calvin Klein and Levi’s, to ensure third party branded products and services adhere to the company’s internal sustainability requirements. Bearing this in mind, Maxwell admits that increased regulatory guidance from the Government would make her day-to-day role easier.

“It’s a case of working with those brands to get them to do effectively what we’re doing with our house brands,” Maxwell said. “A lot more legal requirements that make it black and white would really be helpful because then we could say to our brands and concessions ‘this is how it is’. That would be enormously helpful.”

As this statement would indicate, Maxwell is a big believer in the positive role of legislation to create a “level playing field” within the industry. House of Fraser was an early mover in declaring a Modern Slavery Statement, an action Maxwell explains was aided by the fact that legislation around the topic was first introduced when House of Fraser’s own CSR strategy was starting to build momentum.

“Probably because House of Fraser was coming to the party late and starting to look at these things, we were looking at them in the context of the MSA [Modern Slavery Act] and what was the requirement,” she explained. “We were putting in quite a comprehensive approach in response to that to begin with.”

‘Huge leap forward’

The relative ease with which House of Fraser adopted the principles of the MSA has, unfortunately, not been replicated universally across the retail sector, where efforts to address modern slavery have faced many barriers such as supply chain complexity and commercial priorities. Indeed, recent research highlights that levels of exploitation are in fact rising across large swathes of the continent, including the UK.

Reflecting on these concerning developments, Maxwell admitted that the transition of supply chain transparency from the voluntary space into a mandatory legal requirement has required a “huge leap forward” from some players within the industry.

“Businesses have been challenged in understanding the implications of it and developing systems that will be consistent with it. The MSA is a rigorous piece of legislation and the supply chain aspects of it, in terms of what retailers are asked to do and asked to cascade back to suppliers.

“So, it’s a huge leap forward for any business that hasn’t looked at this previously. I’m sure the reports that have come out to date would be consistent with this. Unfortunately some companies have struggled with it.”

So, in light of these regulatory developments, what is Maxwell’s top tip for retailers looking to build legal and ethical labour standards compliance within the retail supply chain? The Sustainable Business Group founder director points towards the intrinsic value of collaboration – House of Fraser sits alongside many retailers and brands as an active member of the Fast Forward initiative, designed and developed to help identify all guises of modern slavery.

“The goalposts are always shifting, and quite rightly, because it’s always about continuous improvements. Keeping up to speed with all the latest developments and how you can improve your performance in line with them as effectively as possible – that’s always a challenge. That’s where joining initiatives such as Fast Forward can be really helpful.”

Science-based targets

Looking ahead to House of Fraser’s sustainability plan for the next three to five years, Maxwell and her team is resolutely focused on slashing carbon emissions across the business, including stores, offices, products and supply chain.

At the start of the 2017/18 financial year, House of Fraser set a target aligned with key performance indicators (KPIs) to drive reductions by 5% by 2022. But with progress moving rapidly, Maxwell confirmed that House if Fraser is now eyeing up the adoption of science-based targets, which would place the department store in line with the scale of reductions required to keep global warming below 2C from pre-industrial levels.

“It’s something that we’re looking at and are interested in to see what it would look like,” she said. “We’re currently targeting 5% improvement over the next five years, and we’re already well into that. So, year-on-year, we’ll revise that target as we need. to We’ve been finding our way in our first year to find out how that works for us as a business and also to refine our metrics. There’s no reason to say that throughout those five years, upon achieving that target, that we would look to see what it looks like in terms of science-based targets.

“It’s unusual for retailers to use it – other than M&S saying they have an aspiration to go towards the targets, I’m not aware of any other retailers that are using them. It’s usually the more carbon-intensive companies that are using them, so all we can do is look to how they are doing it at the moment.”

Dorothy Maxwell at edie’s Responsible Retail conference

House of Fraser’s head of sustainability Dr Dorothy Maxwell is among the expert speakers that will appear on stage at edie’s Responsible Retail conference taking place on 20 September 2017 at the 99 City Road Conference Centre in London.

The conference will equip retailers, sustainability professionals and key stakeholders with the information and tools they need to accelerate the transition to more sustainable business practices, reduce long-term costs, improve brand reputation and increase profit margins.

Find out more and register to attend here.

George Ogleby

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