“Every time we do something right, we make more money” – that was the message Lord Stuart Rose was keen to land in his talk about sustainable capitalism. The ‘King of Retail’ was making this point during a masterclass guest lecture at the University of York.
It’s now years since M&S launched its ambitious Plan A commitment, leading the way not just for the retail industry, but also for many businesses, encouraging them to think about their responsibility to work in an ethical and profitable way.
One of the biggest challenges faced when promoting a sustainability strategy is ensuring there is real commitment and credibility behind the statements. High-profile examples of businesses such as Starbucks, Google and Amazon avoiding paying UK tax – though entirely legal – erodes the sense of trust, fairness and community that customers value. It proves that marketing rhetoric can be quickly undermined if the reality doesn’t back that up. Credibility is the fundamental ingredient to sustainable capitalism.
By natural extension, all successful, profitable brands must ensure that what they want to achieve is played out through the reality of how they operate. For example, businesses that seek to put the customer at the heart of their organisation must address the primary questions “Do we currently make customers central to our decision making? And do we truly listen to our customers with willingness and an agility to react accordingly?”
Brands that have become leaders in their chosen field – whether service, creativity or product innovation – have done so because they’ve built their entire organisation around fulfilling that goal. It’s not easy to restructure and build a business culture around a single-minded vision; it takes real belief that the direction you’re taking is the right one.
And the harsh truth is that unless the brand commitment is both believed and owned at the very top of the business it’s unlikely to hold much weight. Lord Stuart Rose took personal control of the Plan A commitments; if responsibility had been devolved it would have certainly lost its imperative and momentum, relegated to another task on an extensive to-do list.
In our experience, we’ve seen that profitable businesses rely on the commitment and credibility of leadership teams to align their words and actions: to show visible ownership of the strategy and to be willing to build the business around it. Our philosophy of building better worlds of work is about increasing alignment through all levels of the organisation; colleagues become owners too, so that their actions and behaviours ally to the vision and strategy. And that’s the true essence of sustainability; making an investment that will generate a lasting, positive return.