We speak to Lord Stuart Rose, who was chief executive of Marks & Spencer for four years before assuming the role of executive chair at the retailer in 2008 for a further two years.
The interview is part of a series for a report, Secrets of Pioneers, Delivering a Decade of Green Growth, which will be launched at the BusinessGreen Leaders’ Summit on 9th November 2017.
During his time at M&S Lord Rose oversaw the introduction of the flagship Plan A sustainability programme, widely regarded as an industry-leading environmental agenda. He was also the chairman of the Stronger In campaign for the 2016 referendum on leaving the EU.
He was knighted in 2008, and was made a life peer in 2014. In 2014 he was also named BusinessGreen’s Lifetime Achievement Award Winner.
What did the sustainability landscape look like in 2007?
I think the wheels had slightly come off people’s passion for climate change and for sustainability because of course we were on the brink of the great economic crisis. So there was a real push a couple of years before that but people really were beginning to worry more about the economy. And I was feeling at the time that greenness, sustainability, was falling off the agenda because people were worrying about their businesses.
How has that landscape changed over the last 10 years?
We are in a better place now than we were 20 years ago, and we are in a better place now than we were 15 years ago, but I have to say that in the last few years I think there has been more flatlining than I would have liked. It’s come off the top of government agendas. There hasn’t been the same passion and unification as I would have expected, and of course the United States hasn’t played as big a part or as passionate a leadership role as one would have liked. In the UK, I have to say, with the last government and with the present government, it’s certainly not top of their agenda.
In terms of the business moves, what have you seen in the last decade that gives perhaps more cause for optimism?
I’m optimistic, and there are some very good examples of businesses that have really continued to drive forward. So lots of small businesses have picked up the baton, lots of medium businesses. And the Unilevers of this world, the Walmarts of this world, even the Marks & Spencers of this world, have reset their targets for 2020 and 2025. So there are some good things going on in the sustainability arena, but it doesn’t have the same cut through, in my view, that it could have had if we had a government that was really pushing the agenda.
What’s the most important lesson you have learnt in this area over the last decade?
I wish I had started my own journey earlier. I wish people would understand that 2050 is only 33 years away. And it will go in a nanosecond. Actions we don’t take today will have a dire effect if the predictions are true. So we have to really act early, act soon, act in a unified way and get on with it.
Is that the advice that you would give someone starting out in sustainability today?
I would tell them the most important enemy you have got is time. We have to move on fast, and if you don’t move on fast now you will regret because time will go very quickly. So speed is of the essence.
What would you like the world to look like in 10 years’ time?
I would like to see more co-operation. No country, no business, no individual, is big enough to be able to tackle some of the problems this planet will be facing in 20, 30, 40 or 50 years’ time. We need more co-operation across governments, companies and NGOs, and we need more of a coherent and cohesive government vision for what the issues are and how we are going to deal with them. I really do believe that one plus one plus one equals more than three.
What will be the key challenges over the next decade?
Well, the biggest three things that we are going to face – and everybody knows this – is the global population, which is increasing exponentially. This means we are likely to have a shortage of energy, food and water. Not across the whole world, but in certain areas there will be big crises. So that’s the problem for the next 50 years – how do we feed this ever-expanding population on the planet? And how do we do that in such a way that we also protect what’s left of our eco structure?
How does that change life for people in the street?
Well, we have to educate people. The really dangerous place to be would be if everybody does nothing, then eventually governments will wake up to the fact that there is a crisis and they will be forced to legislate. And legislation is a very crude weapon, it’s a very crude instrument. And what you need to do is to head that off at the pass to avoid that.
Start taking actions now, however small on an individual level, or however large on a corporate or government level, which will make sure that we don’t have to go to the fall-back option of governments having to take action because we are facing a crisis.
Do you think we will be on course for a two degree target?
I don’t know. We’re going to have a whole crisis on our hands about water or energy, and on top of that if we have got a planet that is warming that’s only going to make all those problems more challenging.
So 1C would be bad enough, even 1.5. I don’t think we need to stick with 2C as a benchmark.
The planet is getting hotter. We are polluting it, we are creating the conditions which will put – without over emphasising it – the potential survival of this species on this planet under threat.
If you could invest in one technology for the next decade, which would it be and why?
The one I think is the most exciting is the electric car.
The technology is here. Now it is not about the technology, it’s about the mindset. Would I buy an electric car? Absolutely. We have to get everybody to think that way.
Literally last week I’ve starting looking at whether I should change my car for one. Even I, an old Luddite like myself, has woken up to the fact that I need to do something about it.
This interview is one of more than 20 which make up a report, Secrets of the Pioneers: Delivering a Decade of Green Growth, to be published on 9th November, coinciding with the BusinessGreen Leaders’ Summit.
We have already featured 10 other interviews with leaders from the sector, including Christiana Figueres, former executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, Mike Barry, director of sustainable business at Marks & Spencer, and climate scientist Dr Emily Shuckburgh. These interviews and many others are available on the blog.
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At Greenhouse, we support a wide variety of organisations pioneering new standards of sustainability across multiple sectors. Whether it’s fashion, finance or farming, we’re always on the look-out for new opportunities to reach our clients’ target audiences. If you’ve got a great story and need our help to tell it, we’d love to hear from you.