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John Lewis commits to sustainability and reducing impact on nature

© Shutterstock / Chinnaponghands holding over an image of the earth

UK retailer, the John Lewis Partnership (JLP), has released its Plan for Nature, outlining a number of commitments to reduce its impact on the natural environment. 

  • The plan includes targets for deforestation-free supply chains, achieving net zero emissions across UK supplier farms, introducing circular revenue streams and a £2 million partnership with the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). 
  • With over over 50% of global economic output deemed moderately or highly dependent on nature, businesses are facing increasing pressure to reduce their environmental impacts. 
  • JLP’s employee-owned structure could support its ability to achieve its ambitious sustainability targets.  

The John Lewis Partnership (JLP), operator of John Lewis department stores, Waitrose supermarkets, a financial services arm and other retail-related activities, has launched its Plan for Nature, outlining a range of commitments to reduce the environmental impacts of its commercial activity. 

The plan is underpinned by the firm’s goal of being among the first UK businesses to set verified goals under the upcoming Science-Based Targets Initiative (SBTi) framework for nature. 

Its announcement follows the agreement of a £420 million revolving credit facility the company agreed in 2021, which is linked to environmental targets. The facility replaced outstanding credit facilities of £500 million due to expire in 2022, and was provided by seven banks who continue to offer important backing to the Partnership and its plans.

Pressure for action on nature impact is growing

There is growing pressure for corporations to take action on their operational impact on nature and it is becoming an increasing reputational liability. According to polling from National Trust, the RSPB and WWF, 81% of UK adults believe nature is under threat and that more needs to be done urgently to protect and restore it.

Almost half (48%) are willing to take action themselves to reverse the damage but 42% don’t feel empowered to do so. In the UK, November 2022 will see the launch of a people’s assembly, People’s Plan for Nature,  backed by the WWF.

Recommendations from the assembly, on actions that can be taken to protect and restore nature, including the role of businesses, the environment sector, communities and individuals in helping nature in the UK to thrive are due to be published in 2023. JLP looks as if its getting ahead of the curve.

UK is one of the poorest performing countries in terms of nature

According to Marija Rompani, JLP’s director of ethics and sustainability, “the UK currently languishes in the bottom 10% of global countries for its abundance of nature. That’s unacceptable and given the tiny window in which we have to get this right, delaying action is simply not an option. This is why we’re going back to our roots and focusing our efforts on protecting and restoring nature.” 

“We all know that we can’t exist without nature, it is essential for our survival and it will play a vital role in solving the problem of climate change. We can’t solve one without the other, the crises of nature loss and climate change are inextricably linked”, she said. 

JLP is understood to be focusing its restoration efforts in Norfolk, and in India (where in sources cotton) in partnership with WWF. In order to ensure that the company is addressing its impact in a range of ways, the business has also committed to implementing “buy back or take back” schemes in every product category by 2025.

The company says it hopes to ensure that all key materials in own-brand products, including timber, cotton, soya, palm oil, cocoa and cashmere come from recycled or sustainable sources by 2025.

Why is focus on nature so important? 

The World Economic Forum estimates that over 50% of global economic output, roughly $44 trillion, is moderately or highly dependent on nature.

Industries such as agriculture, food and beverages or apparel – some of the JLP’s core business areas – are dependent on nature in that they rely on either the direct extraction of resources from forests and oceans or the provision of ecosystem services such as healthy soils, clean water, pollination and a stable climate. 

Such commodities are associated with a wide range of environmental impacts, including greenhouse gas emissions, biodiversity loss, reduced soil health and corresponding carbon sequestration capacity and pollution.  Impact on nature is also closely associated with emissions management, and is inextricably linked to climate change in terms of resource scarcity, supply chain and infrastructure resilience, food systems and more.

At the same time, the interconnections between environmental and socio-economic issues means that carefully planned actions to deliver a nature-positive transition could generate up to $10.1 trillion in annual business value and create up to 395 million jobs globally by 2030. 

As these risks and opportunities emerge, businesses are facing increased pressure to address the impacts of their activities on nature. Commodity supply chains, such as those involved in JLP’s operations, have already begun to shift in response.  

This shift can be seen in a range of new initiatives, including a recent commitment by Waitrose and two other UK supermarket chains to invest £11 million towards the removal of deforestation and land conversion in their soy supplies. 

JLP’s employee-owned business model could support sustainability commitments 

JLP operates under an employee-owned structure, with its constitution requiring it to prioritise the wellbeing of its employees over its profitability.  

Power within the partnership is shared between its chairman, partnership board and partnership council. These bodies include a number of democratically elected and independent individuals, bringing a diverse range of voices to the business’ decision-making process. No one is awarded power without the consent of employees throughout the business, who can express their views through both formal mechanisms and representative bodies. 

Employees are, therefore, key stakeholders in the business and any consideration of the material impacts associated with sustainability decisions must be centred around their interests.

Recognising this, JLP established its Ethics and Sustainability Committee in 2021 to advise the board on how it could align its strategy with the values of its employees. 

There is some evidence to suggest that such a business model could be beneficial in supporting corporate sustainability goals. Rather than prioritising the interests of shareholders, who are typically more distanced from the business and care mostly about its financial returns, employee-owned structures enable a bottom-up decision-making process through which those directly involved in day-to-day activities can be engaged. 

Values alignment is becoming increasing core to successful recruitment

According to Deloitte, moral values are becoming an increasingly important factor in how workers select potential employers, while the National Environmental Education Foundation has reported that almost 90% of employees experienced greater job satisfaction when engaged in their company’s sustainability initiatives. 

These findings suggest that JLP’s acknowledgement of its employee’s values could be a factor in its renewed focus on sustainability. Indeed, research comparing purpose-led businesses with employee-owned structures against those without has concluded that employee-ownership contributed to better environmental impact scores under the B-Corp framework. 

The study went on to say that, although employee ownership does not guarantee that a business will focus on its environmental impact, it can be particularly influential as their leadership changes. In such cases, the purpose of the organisation remains entrenched within its broader culture and can be maintained permanently despite the coming and going of individual leaders. 

Traditionally, sustainability strategies have been considered a governance or board issue, with responsibility for their implementation lying in the hands of a few individuals. Under an employee-owned structure, this top-down structure is replaced with democratic processes that consider the values and intentions of the people whose actions and decisions actually affect how business operations play out in practicality. 

As such, JLP’s employee-owned structure could play a key role in driving the organisation-wide transformation needed to achieve the ambitious targets of its Plan for Nature. With the UK’s employee-owned sector having doubled between 2020 and 2022, the rise of such models could bring a new trend in how the country’s businesses effectively deliver on their sustainability targets. 

The specific sustainability goals of the JLP Nature Plan

Under the new Plan for Nature John Lewis Partnership has committed to the elimination of deforestation from the supply chains of Waitrose and John Lewis own brand products. It is also investing £2 million investment in ecosystem protection and regeneration projects in two key sourcing regions, Norfolk and India, under a partnership with the World Wildlife Fund (WWF).

The company is to ensure that all key raw materials in own-brand products are more sustainable or from recycled sources by 2025. Within its supply chain, it will fund sustainable water management programmes in three key fresh-produce sourcing areas and intends to get to net zero emissions at its Leckford Estate farm in Hampshire by 2024, before expanding to all UK supplier farms by 2035.

In terms of logistics it will transition all heavy trucks to biomethane fuel by 2028, with fossil fuels to be removed from its entire transport fleet by 2030.  It also plans to incorporate natural design principles into all key new build and renovation projects, including Build to Rent projects that the Partnership is involved in.   

Finally it has committed to developing more rental, resale and return opportunities to offer more sustainable ownership options for customers across key areas including fashion, home and technology.   

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