I couldn’t be more delighted that so many of you have once again been tempted to the London Lecture of my Business and Environment Programme and as always I must try to be careful not to give the lecture myself.
Before I introduce the latest of our eminent speakers in this series, I just want to say a few words about the Programme itself. I am conscious that a considerable number of you who are here this evening are here for the first time, and I very much hope this event will lead to many fruitful relationships in future.
The entire exercise is a remarkable testament to Polly Courtice and Jonathon Porritt, the tireless co-directors of the Programme, James Smith and the Management Committee and the team at Cambridge University’s Programme for Industry. They are working with an ever-increasing Core Faculty of the highest calibre and we now run six seminars each year around the world. The latest of these will start in Australia this year.
At the same time, we have some important initiatives which derive their impetus from the capacity of the Programme team to mobilize the energy and talents of an extraordinary array of alumni and the organizations which employ them. I am not, you will be glad to hear, going to go into any detail now, but the Corporate Leaders Group on Climate Change – to be matched from next week by an E.U. group with the same function – is a splendid example of what can happen when business leaders see the need to move beyond discussion of a problem to identifying the actions that will make a difference.
And I have to say that the achievements of this group, now working closely with Government, are, to my mind, amongst the most important initiatives to emerge from my Business and the Environment Programme. I can only congratulate the companies who have so determinedly taken this leadership position.
In a similar vein, I am delighted that the groundbreaking Business Task Force on Sustainable Consumption and Production, recently established by the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Department of Trade and Industry, draws its core membership from alumni of both the Business & Environment Programme and Business in the Community. The focus of its work on innovative solutions that support economic growth and competitiveness, while systematically controlling and reducing the associated environmental footprint, is precisely the sort of approach I believe we need.
Now having given you just a brief glimpse into my Programme’s activities, it is now my pleasure to introduce this year’s speaker, Mr. Lee Scott, who, as you all know, is President and Chief Executive of Wal-Mart. As the leader of one of the world’s largest corporations, Mr. Scott is in a position of extraordinary influence. Like other major international retailers, the decisions taken by his corporation can make a huge difference to our world – and, indeed to humanity generally. Someone once told me that if Wal-Mart were a country, in terms of its profit, it would be the 20th largest in the world. So any decisions which it takes are not only powerful in their own right, they also have a major influence on others in the sector, and, of course, on their suppliers.
This is why everyone took such note of Mr. Scott’s speech in October 2005 – itself the result of the wake-up call, as he described it to me, after Hurricane Katrina – when he set out how Wal-Mart was going to address the whole subject of sustainability. And it is why we have invited him to share his view of where the company is on its journey towards a more sustainable world and we couldn’t be more grateful for him giving up his spare time to come here.
In some ways it may be premature to ask for an account of an initiative that is still so young. But Wal-Mart’s announcement gave many people cause for hope. At the same time, perhaps, it laid down the gauntlet to other businesses. And let me just say that the current healthy competition in this area between one or two of the biggest names in U.K. retailing is extremely encouraging and I can only congratulate them for their recent bold moves…
I know from my own conversation with Mr. Scott over a year ago, when he came to see me in London, that one of the critical factors which led him to look carefully at sustainability as an issue for his business was the realization that climate change would lead to an increase in the number of hurricanes with the devastating power of Hurricane Katrina. And, of course, climate change is indeed the biggest environmental issue we face. Thankfully, it’s a subject that has had a considerable, if long-overdue airing recently, although I think there is a risk – if we aren’t careful – that people will begin to equate protecting the environment with reducing the rate of climate change. You might say that would be a good start, and I would agree. Yet somehow we have also to find ways of tackling all the other environmental issues too – many of which are being accelerated by changes in climate.
For instance, one of the issues which I have often felt is neglected is the plight of the world’s oceans and the terrifying decline in fish stocks. Today we are celebrating the first anniversary of Wal-Mart’s announcement that within five years it will source all of its fish from stocks certified by the Marine Stewardship Council. According to the Council, the effect has been huge: new fisheries have entered the assessment process and other retailers around the world, many of them in the U.K., have made the same decision or are reviewing their own seafood-sourcing policies. I think it is right to acknowledge publicly that this initiative began with Unilever, just as the equally successful Forest Stewardship Council started with B&Q. In each case, W.W.F. found a brave and innovative company as a partner, with management which saw a problem ahead and was prepared to take a risk in looking for solutions. The ultimate success of these and similar initiatives is dependent on others joining in.
Of course, I don’t need to tell any of you that true sustainable development is about far more than the environment alone. It is about building a society both now and for future generations in which the natural and social capital are in harmony. My point is that to achieve this we urgently need leaders who are willing to make the first move.
So my challenge for each of you here tonight is: ‘What are you going to be first at?’ Where can you, and your organization, lead the way on sustainability? What are the biggest environmental and social impacts from your sector, and how could you systematically reduce them?
For the many of you who already have one or more sustainability initiatives under way, the question is slightly different: ‘How can you take what you have learned and scale it up across the whole company?’ And then to your whole sector, and beyond…
So, I much look forward to hearing the answer to those questions in due course, but for now I will just once again thank Lee Scott most warmly for being here tonight, and invite him to address us.