The Environment Business Interview – Going the extra mile

Reputation is key to the John Lewis Partnership, especially when you own and run Britain's 'best-loved' store. Tom Idle spoke to Head of Corporate Social Responsibility, Nick Monger-Godfrey

Nick Monger-Godfrey considers himself a fortunate man. As Head of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) for the John Lewis Partnership he is working for an organisation which has held core CSR values since it began in 1928. “The partnership was set up with a list of principles which still exist today. They read like a modern-day CSR agenda,” he tells me. So, his challenge isn’t necessarily to engage with fellow employees but to spread the message of responsible practice to the firm’s many different stakeholder groups – from customers and suppliers, to the Government and NGOs.

Unlike many large corporations, the CSR function at John Lewis Partnership (which comprises both the John Lewis department store and Waitrose supermarket) doesn’t operate to attract outside investors. Instead, Nick’s team intends to highlight the company as a good environmental performer to ensure the long-term sustainability of the business. And, despite reaching ninth in last year’s Business In The Community’s Corporate Index, he insists that improving the company’s position in such indices shouldn’t be a reason for performing well on the environment. “The ethical investment community obviously has a massive role to play in driving standards,” he says. “Things like FTSE4Good, and the EIRIS Index can dictate what individuals do who have a similar job to me within listed companies.

“Some companies do things to improve their position in indices. We do things to improve our performance on the environment.”

Interestingly, Nick’s CSR reports, produced every two years, aren’t externally verified. He’d rather spend the money on improving John Lewis’s environmental practice.

Four key areas

His team’s work is divided into four key areas: environmental protection, community affairs, ethical trading, and staff welfare. He spends his time ensuring that the timber furniture on sale is from Forest Stewardship Council-certified forests and that child exploitation isn’t happening within the companies supplying goods to Waitrose’s 18,000 different product lines. It’s a huge business – employing 63,000 people in the UK and turning over £5.8 billion a year. And in juggling his responsibility of ensuring the business stays on the right side of the law, with maintaining its image as the nation’s best-loved store (as decided by a recent poll), Nick’s certainly got his work cut out. “We need to demonstrate compliance with the increasing plethora of European and national laws and regulations,” he states.

“But the difference between a socially responsible company and compliant company is one that wants to go that extra mile.

“Going beyond compliance is, naturally, a cost. But it works to our advantage because there are savings associated with being environmentally responsible.” And with more than 170 Waitrose stores nationwide, efficient operation is a must. “We’ve experienced an 80% increase in energy costs across our business over the last 18 months. That’s £18 million off our bottom line.

“If that’s not an incentive to make our business more energy efficient, I don’t know what is.”

The concept of CSR has been supported within John Lewis and really grown among its consumers. The huge increase in sales of organic and Fairtrade produce only goes to show how important ethical standards are to a company like this. But, as Nick argues, CSR programmes don’t need to be grandiose to make an impact. “You don’t need a CSR department or strategy,” he argues. “You just need to care about your performance, your people and your suppliers.”

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