It’s not only in politics that new undercurrents are eroding old assumptions. A similar, if less explosive, questioning of conventional wisdom is happening in business circles as well.
I was reminded of this when reading a lengthy open letter attacking the proposed third runway at Heathrow in The Times the other week. Nothing surprising about that, you may think. Except that the signatories were some of our most prominent businessmen. Among them were Ian Cheshire, chief executive of Kingfisher, Jeremy Darroch, ceo of BSkyB, Charles Dunstone, founder of Carphone Warehouse, Sir Roy Gardner, ceo of Compass, Justin King, ceo of J Sainsbury, James Murdoch and the well-known private equity specialist, Jon Moulton.
The gist of their argument was that the Government go-ahead for the runway simply “did not stack up”. The specific critique of official economic growth forecasts and the relative importance of the City to our economy is less important in this context than the sub-text of their message. Here were some of our leading businessmen directly contradicting the stated opinion not only of the unions and government, but some of their natural constituencies, including the CBI and the British Chambers of Commerce.
They weren’t saying that extra jobs and economic expansion were unimportant. They were saying their opponents didn’t get the bigger picture:
“Climate change cannot be ignored and our approach to transport must reflect the seriousness with which we take our Climate Act target to cut emissions by 80% by 2050.” And: “Millions of people in the UK oppose the new runway. They are our customers and our colleagues. The business community must take account of the strongly held views of those living in the broader community in which we operate.”
This espousal of high-minded corporate social responsibility was not some freak coalition of like-minded businessmen, but part of a wider and carefully thought-out programme whose keynote is sustainability.
Fast forward to last week, and the launch of the Eat Seasonably campaign, which will attempt to introduce people to the benefits of eating fruit and vegetables at their “seasonal best”. The campaign is backed by a rainbow coalition of Defra secretary of state Hilary Benn, a number of celebrity chefs, voluntary organisations such as the Royal Horticultural Society, the National Trust, RSPB, some Borough Market traders and Marks & Spencer, Tesco, Waitrose and Sainsbury’s.
You might make a connection here with Justin King and the Heathrow runway campaign – and you wouldn’t be wrong. But have you spotted the more subliminal one with Ian Cheshire, the Kingfisher ceo who is also chairman of DIY market leader B&Q? I thought not.
Cheshire is a linchpin figure in an emerging CSR movement that attempts to knit business and civil society in a collaborative effort to promote more sustainable lifestyles.
He and Dame Fiona Reynolds, director general of the National Trust, have been the main movers behind Eat Seasonably. Although it’s true to say there is an element of direct corporate self-interest in persuading people to grow their own and open up new allotments, given B&Q’s considerable exposure to the gardening market, there is also a higher purpose involved.
Eat Seasonably is in fact the first leg of a two-year project called “We Will If You Will” that will focus not just on the food we eat, but the way we run our homes, what we throw away, what we buy and how we use transport. The thread of sustainability running through each element is readily discernible. It is not just Eat Seasonably, but the whole campaign that is being spearheaded by Reynolds and Cheshire, with the active endorsement of Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who helped initiate it in November 2007.
Note that government is a collaborator here, rather than the motor force: it provides seed-corn finance, such as secretarial services and a policy framework. This is a wide-ranging movement where a number of chief executives are expected to perform key roles, via their membership of such non-governmental organisations as The Climate Group (remember We’re In This Together, set up two years ago?) and Cambridge University’s Corporate Leaders Group on Climate Change.
I asked Cheshire why he considered the CSR project so important.”Three things, I think,” he replied. “My time at B&Q convinced me of the importance of the sustainability agenda. I’ve been a member of Corporate Leaders for Climate Change for four years. And, when the PM asks you to do something, you tend to do it, don’t you?”
Fair enough. But he’s also convinced that independent CSR campaigns like Eat Seasonably are a better way of getting things done: they can bring consumers round to a point of view without lecturing or bludgeoning them. And that makes sense for big brands as well as government.
Indeed, he sees no option but for chief executives to be major CSR participants, so much have things moved on in the past ten years. “There’s an urgency now about sustainability issues that wasn’t there before. It’s up to our generation to definitely do something about them. These
But he does caution against “greenwash”, and positioning for the sake of positioning.
“You’ve got to make it a part of your DNA or it won’t work.” And that goes for convincing shareholders as well.
But what happens when the parties in these broad-church coalitions come to blows? Wasn’t this exactly what was happening over the third runway issue at Heathrow – with leading businessmen at loggerheads with government policy, I suggested?
“We have not been co-opted by the Government to agree with all their policies. I see no dissonance on this,” was Cheshire’s reply.