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Sir Ian Cheshire: Don't fear sustainability

February 2011 – Sustainability: it needn’t send a ripple of fear through the boardroom! An opinion piece by Sir Ian Cheshire, former Group CEO, Kingfisher plc


Sir Ian CheshireThe past few years have been a time of upheaval for businesses across Europe. Given the delicate balance of the current economic environment, and the fragility of the economic recovery, one might be forgiven for being uncertain about the future.

What is clear already, however, is that there are pressures and concerns we can readily identify that we are going to have to tackle in order to have any kind of long-term economic growth. Climate change, resource and energy constraints and population growth are not temporary problems that can be overcome by simply waiting for them to pass; we are all going to need to live and work more sustainably.

"Those who have been through the Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership’s challenging programme will recognise that if businesses are going to adapt and thrive, they are going to have to find new and innovative ways for businesses, employees and consumers to balance future environmental, social and economic interests."

Improving sustainability can, however, send a ripple of fear through many boardrooms.

Bombarding people with huge figures and complex arguments, accompanied by apocalyptic predictions of the future, will more often hinder rather than help. It does little to change habits and offers no practical solutions. In short, most of us simply don’t relate to abstract notions of “x tonnes of CO2 emissions”.

But sustainability does not have to be complicated. We know from experience that small actions can make a difference and lots of small actions add up to a big change. For example, a simple initiative of changing to low energy lighting in our store lighting canopies helped us achieve a 12% reduction in C02 from electricity use.

By changing business attitudes – and crucially providing people with the tools to do it –change can ripple though individual companies to family, friends, neighbours, colleagues, colleagues’ friends and family and so on, thus embedding sustainability in wider society.

At Kingfisher, we are so convinced of this, that we are developing a business growth strategy based firmly on green products and services. As one of the world's leading home improvement retailers, Kingfisher is in a unique position to help consumers make their homes more sustainable at lower cost. At the same time, we aim to make our own business more sustainable by reducing our environmental and social impacts.

There are of, course, huge questions to be answered. How can boardrooms link corporate sustainable behaviour to shareholder value? How can expectations of a return on environmental investment be altered to properly take the value of future continuity into account? How can our growing understanding of behavioural change help us to make these challenges easier?

Those companies which best address these concerns, embracing new technologies and business practices will not only be doing something good for the environment, but will be the cornerstone of future economies. We can all enjoy a sustainable future, so long as companies learn to adapt and thrive to a new sustainable setting.

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Adele Wiliams

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