B&Q goes to root of its problems

The conclusion was that a ban on tropical timber would be counter- productive and might increase the rate of clearance
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THE TURBULENCE around the Brent Spar has subsided for the time being. The question of how a company copes when, like Shell, it comes under attack from the shock troops of the green movement, remains.

B&Q, part of the Kingfisher group and the UK's biggest DIY chain, faced the green onslaught four years ago in the form of a "chainsaw" massacre organised by protesters against the sale of rainforest timber.

As a publicity stunt - and thus as the cause of damage to B&Q - it was highly successful. But a sea-change was already under way within the company, culminating in probably the most thorough research ever carried out by a British retailer into the environmental impact of its purchasing practices.

The case demonstrates how businesses can play a key role in achieving the goals of the environmental movement - which happens to be a good way of heading off the kind of humiliation Shell has suffered.

A year after B&Q was asked by a newspaper how much tropical timber it stocked - and its marketing director, Bill Whiting, realised that despite the company's claims to high ethical social standards, he did not know the answers - an environmental consultant, Dr Alan Knight, was hired, with an annual budget of pounds 500,000.

By 1993, B&Q had met its aim of finding out the source of all its wood. By the end of this year it will have fulfilled its pledgeonly to buy timber it knows to have been produced sustainably. By 1999, its aim is that all its timber will come from forests that have been independently certified as sustainably managed.

The story of B&Q's greening is told in the first of a series of case- studies on corporate social responsibility researched by the Newcastle- based New Consumer group and Bristol University, with the backing of the Economic and Social Research Council. Despite its initial cost, the exercise, according to B&Q, has more than paid for itself.

Dr Knight, a marine biologist previously with the National Rivers Authority and the Landbank environmental consultancy, joined with a brief to examine B&Q's entire product range, reporting directly to the board of directors.

Dr Knight's investigations revealed a complex and disturbing picture. The company buys timber produced from 50 different tree species sourced from 45 countries by 115 suppliers. For all the claims of sustainable forestry, 90 per cent of suppliers did not know where their timber came from, no checks were run and the only advice from pressure groups was to stop buying tropical timber. Only 8 per cent of suppliers were judged by B&Q to have a good environmental performance.

Dr Knight concluded that a ban on tropical timber would be counter-productive and might increase the rate of forest clearance. However, that increased the importance of defining sustainable forestry. Hence B & Q's decision to join the Worldwide Fund for Nature's attempt to define and certify well-managed forests, in the form of the Forest Stewardship Council.

Through the Ecological Trading Company, an small business specialising in "green" timber, B &Q was also put in touch with community forestry initiatives in Papua New Guinea, notably one run by the Bainings tribal people. The Bainings fell, saw and process trees in the forest -each tree takes about a week to deal with - and earn nearly 40 times more this way than by selling land to commercial logging operations. B&Q also buys timber from two other community forestry projects.

The lesson of the B&Q experience is that such a large change in a company's culture requires backing by and thus regular contact with the board. B&Q has also refused to oversell its progress and thus expose the company to the charge of perpetrating yet another "green con". Another key to success was presenting the board with a series of small recommendations rather than a single, daunting "big bang" policy change.

The cost? Because raw timber accounts for a relatively small part of the finished product, Dr Knight says, it amounts to just 10p on a door retailing at pounds 50-pounds 75.