Sir Ian Cheshire: Seeing the big picture on sustainable growth will rescue our economy, society and environment

Once business leaders have seen the financial benefits of green growth they seldom forget it

It comes naturally to most chief executives to optimise company performance and target new percentage points of growth each year. But it’s also important to scan the horizon if you want to thrive and survive in a rapidly changing world.

In retail, we have witnessed the seismic impact of the internet on consumer behaviour where traditional retail models, slow to adapt, have suffered catastrophic failure and disappeared from the high street.

There are still other challenges that could create a paradigm shift for every business. One of these is a growing risk that our economy could leave our society and environment behind in the single-minded pursuit of short-term growth.

One of the things that attracted me to Kingfisher 17 years ago was its strong environmental commitment. B&Q had already helped WWF found the Forestry Stewardship Council (FSC), and long-term sustainability leadership has remained a golden thread throughout my time in the group.

This commitment to sustainability is driven by a strong commercial logic. Social and environmental concerns are actually beginning to impinge on business models and the reality of business today. We are already seeing that commodities are hard to extract and hard to find. We are seeing resource pressures, from timber, which is key for us, into other specialist materials.

In many ways our political leaders are tasked with a similar job to that of a CEO – to produce secure economic growth while strengthening society and safeguarding the resources it needs to thrive.

As the latest UN summit takes place in Lima this week, action to tackle climate change continues to cause heated debate as research indicates that delays will ultimately threaten our infrastructure, our food security and our health.

It is clear that the time to adapt to a very different reality is upon us.

Having started Kingfisher on a transformative journey to become a business that will make a net positive contribution to the environment and society, I know there’s no silver bullet.

However, as the CBI chief John Cridland observed last week, once business leaders have experienced for themselves the financial benefits of green growth they seldom forget it. To date, politicians have proved more fickle.

Faced with complex 21st century challenges, our policy-makers need a long-term, systemic approach to chart the risks and unlock the opportunities that lie ahead for the entire economy. Government and business must lead together on this, and diverse coalitions are vital to build confidence and spur both sides to be bolder and more ambitious.

That’s why I’m pleased to support the Aldersgate Group, which is launching a new coalition of businesses, NGOs, think-tanks and thought leaders this week around an ambitious roadmap called An Economy that Works.

The report encourages us to look beyond our fixation on GDP growth as the only measure of economic success and to re-adjust our focus on achieving maximum wellbeing for minimum planetary input.

When the dust settles after the general election in five months’ time, joined-up long-term policy-making needs to prevail over partisan politics.

The prize at stake for the UK is a more stable and more prosperous economy, defined by a lower-cost, lower-carbon infrastructure, high levels of employment, decent jobs and equality of opportunity, high levels of national wellbeing and healthy reserves of natural capital.

2015 needs to be the year we finally start to see the bigger picture and act decisively to strengthen the links between our economy, our society and our environ-ment.

Sir Ian Cheshire is the outgoing group chief executive of Kingfisher plc

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