Sharon White's opening remarks at the Happier World Conference
Sharon White, Chairman of the John Lewis Partnership - opening remarks at the Happier World Conference, powered by the John Lewis Partnership
Hello, it’s great to see all of you here today - thank you for joining us at the John Lewis Partnership’s first ethics and sustainability conference.
A special welcome to the students from George Monoux Sixth Form in Walthamstow.
I know Monoux well. It was a couple of miles from where I went to school and grew up. My economics A level teacher studied there. And many moons ago I remember losing quite badly and getting injured in an athletics competition.
Any discussion about ethics and sustainability isn’t just about the world today - it is about the world we are leaving for the next generation.
I want the students here to challenge us today - and make sure we are thinking radically enough about how we tackle some of the biggest issues anyone on the planet has ever faced.
Your generation should be restless of the status quo and demanding of action not rhetoric.
Your school is already showing in a small but important way how to break the mould.
The first sixth form in London to introduce a later, 10am start to help students with caring responsibilities
And, I suspect, as the mother of teenage boys, who sometimes struggle to get up - a better fit with the teenage body clock.
It’s small steps that make big change.
So, as a business primarily focused on retail and selling things, why are we hosting today’s conference?
Why are ethics and sustainability important to John Lewis and Waitrose?
When the very point of retail is to satisfy people’s desire to consume more?
Is there such a thing as ethical consumption - or is ethical consumption an oxymoron? A contradiction in terms?
I do think consumption can be ethical. And that consumer businesses can be ethical.
But it takes innovation and purposefulness.
Someone we look to for inspiration in the Partnership is John Spedan Lewis.
He created the Partnership almost a hundred years ago.
He was decades ahead of his time.
A keen ecologist, he described himself as ‘first and foremost [being] a naturalist’.
He was a successful and pioneering businessman who gave the Partnership away to the workers (known as Partners).
But he was at least as concerned with the natural environment and conservation.
Back in the 1930s when he bought a farm in Leckford Hampshire, he was already talking and writing about the importance of sustainable farming.
He saw commercial success as a means to pursue social purpose.
And that remains the mission of the John Lewis Partnership today - commercial success hand in hand with a social and ethical agenda.
Operating in an ethical manner is the right thing to do.
It is also a ‘must do’ thing.
Our customers and Partners expect it, especially given the heritage of the business.
The wider public expect it
Almost nine in ten people would prefer to shop from a business that has a social agenda than one that doesn’t.
Nearly eight out of ten say they first look at what a company stands for before deciding whether to apply for a job.
This is even truer of the younger generation.
Surveys show that over 9 in ten of Gen Zers - those born between 1995 and 2010 - say that a company’s purpose affects their wish to work there or not.
I am looking at the students now - I suspect and hope your generation will be more demanding still.
So, how is the Partnership responding?
This year we updated and modernised our Purpose - Working in Partnership for a Happier World.
The word happier is important here.
It suggests a constant moving goal, a sense of pushing ever harder to do better and do more - not a satisfied end state.
Crucial to achieving our Purpose is playing our part to tackle climate change.
UN Secretary general António Guterres called climate change a ‘code red for humanity’.
Human-induced climate change is already producing weather and climate extremes in every region across the globe.
Forest fires in Southern Europe - even in London - absolutely terrifying.
And more recently flooding in Pakistan with one third of the country submerged.
The UN says some changes are already ‘irreversible’.
I was at COP 26 last year and the sense of urgency was palpable.
John Kerry [the US President’s special envoy for climate and former Secretary of State] spoke at a business dinner I attended.
He called this ‘a historic moment for business leadership’.
Also palpable is the sense of fragility in the global coalition for reform.
We are at a pivotal moment.
The War in Ukraine - is not just a human tragedy.
It has weaponised energy and aggravated the cost of living crisis.
It is also causing people, businesses and the political class to focus on energy security and sustainability like never before.
While there are short term risks as some countries turn to fossil fuels.
There is a much bigger opportunity to seize - a faster transition to renewable energy.
The change in attitude in Germany to nuclear energy; proposals here in the UK to speed up the building of wind farms are massive moves in the right direction.
As a business we are trying to play our own part.
Not perfect but trying.
It is a tough trading market this year with shoppers cutting back and our profits under pressure.
We’re having to be really clear headed about what is affordable while staying true to our Purpose.
We don’t want to compromise on cutting our own emissions and making it easier for our customers to do the same but it may take us longer.
We are on track to be at net zero emissions within the business by 2035.
Whether you shop children’s fashion, beauty, homeware or technology, you’ll increasingly have options to shop more sustainably.
You can now rent children’s clothes through our collaboration with thelittleloop.
You can now rent women’s fashion through HURR.
JL Beautycycle and Fashioncycle give you money in return for bringing back used cosmetics packaging or unwanted clothing.
All new John Lewis own-brand products will be capable of being recycled or reused from 2028.
60% of our cotton is already sustainable - it will be 100% by 2025.
When you shop in Waitrose you know that you are shopping the highest animal welfare standards of any supermarket.
And even with pressures on our profits we are investing almost £30mn in British pig and chicken farmers so they don’t have to weaken their ethical standards.
We’re also tackling our own food waste and making it easier for customers to do the same.
Never more important with the cost of living so high.
We’re making our supply chains more local - shoring up supply and reducing our carbon footprint.
I am a realistic optimist.
I am optimistic about the power of people to change the world.
I am also realistic about the context.
I am convinced we will look back in ten years’ time - when you have left school and are well into your careers - and we will see the events of 2022 as a key turning point in the fight to save the planet.
About the John Lewis Partnership
The John Lewis Partnership owns and operates two of Britain's best-loved retail brands - John Lewis and Waitrose. Started as a radical experiment over a century ago, the Partnership is now the largest employee-owned business in the UK, with over 80,000 employees who are all Partners in the business. The Partnership is purpose-driven, existing to create a fairer and more sustainable future for our Partners, customers, suppliers and communities. Our Purpose not only inspires our principles, drives our decisions and acts as our guide to be a force for good, it steers us to do things differently and better - all in service of creating a happier world for everyone and everything we touch.
For more information please contact Gill Smith
[email protected] / 07887898133