Sustainability: Cost, challenges and courage

Sustainability: Cost, challenges and courage
Published: 28 March 2022

Jo Whitfield joined the Co-op in 2016 as Finance Director for Co-op Food Group and became Chief Executive in 2017 making her the first female CEO of a British food retailer. Berwick Partners was delighted to be joined by Jo as the guest speaker at our latest leadership forum. Jo spoke openly and passionately about her experiences and commitment to building a sustainable and accountable business fit for the future.

Jo has been an integral force in helping to deliver and shape the Co-op’s Ten point Climate Plan which launched last year – setting a clear and accountable pathway to achieving net zero by 2040. She has also pioneered a new network for the grocery industry called ‘Grocery Girls’ and is a serving member of the Women’s Business Council. In 2019, Jo became Veuve Clicquot’s Business Woman of the Year and in 2021 received a CBE for services to retail.

Jo opened by highlighting how much had changed in the four months since COP26, acknowledging that today’s leaders and their consumers face significant challenges as a result of the impact of the war in Ukraine, the surge in the cost of living and increasing energy costs. But the response to climate change requires even more change. Balancing this with commercial objectives will be challenging and will require strong decisive and committed leaders.

Collaboration

A constant theme through the discussion was collaboration. As an industry, retailers pulled together like never before to feed the nation during the pandemic. Businesses put aside their competitive agenda and drew on their collective experiences and resources. Climate change requires the same collaboration – there is much greater power in moving as a group. There is no prize for coming first in this race!

Governments and businesses also need to ‘partner’ in a different way to find solutions that have impact and can be rolled out quickly. Policy setting without the involvement of businesses will only hinder faster progress.

Courage

Jo stressed that the climate crisis is a threat to all of us as human beings. It is a sizeable challenge and one that requires the balancing of social, moral and commercial priorities. Rather than viewing it as an impossible problem to solve, leaders should instead be energised and see it as an opportunity to embrace new ways of doing things. Decisive action is needed in the boardroom as we are past the point of just setting targets. Some actions will lead to successes and some may not, but business leaders need to lead the way and help consumers to make better choices.  

Accountability is vital. Leaders need to find a way to demonstrate their commitment through actions. For Jo, that has been to ask for her pay to be linked to these targets.

Communication and Engagement

Communication is essential for success. The goals set along the path to achieving a more sustainable world can often seem too big or simply too far ahead in the future. Engaging with employees at all levels is key to help them understand their role and to galvanise activity.  The approach at the Co-op is to break the plan down into manageable chunks and look at what can be achieved now, what can be done soon and what can be done in the future. They then create accountability and collaborate on solutions, building momentum along the way by celebrating both the big and small milestones.

Communication with consumers is also critical if businesses are to shift more consumers towards buying greener. Keeping the narrative straight forward allows consumers to see their impact and will be more effective.

Ultimately the sustainability crisis is too big for one business, person or country. It requires co-operation. Business leaders will need to seek out a ‘new skill set’ – one that is about cumulative effect rather than competitive advantage!

Get in Touch

Alka Gandhi and Katie Hart specialise in senior leadership recruitment across the Consumer and Retail sector. For more information about the work that we do, or to hear about our upcoming events, please do get in touch.

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