It was to have been Sir Tel’s big week. Ahead of a ground-breaking speech at the London School of Economics advertising Tesco’s wholehearted commitment to green innovation, its chief executive had lined up a couple of showcase initiatives.
First up is the trial of electric-car charging facilities, and shortly afterwards Tesco will announce that it is building ‘the world’s first zero-carbon store’ in Cambridgeshire.
Then along comes Greenpeace and pours acid rain on Leahy’s parade with a report insinuating that Tesco, and numerous other famous brands, have been encouraging illegal destruction of the Amazon rainforest by sourcing their meat from unscrupulous ranchers who have systematically climate-raped the region.
Leahy’s predicament is typical of that facing many chief executives of major brands. How do you reconcile the provision of value for money with the broader communitarian needs of your customers – and not find yourself in the dock accused of hypocrisy?
The answer, if you are a progressive business leader, is that sometimes you cannot. But many judge the risk well worth taking; indeed they believe they have no real alternative but to embrace sustainability as an integral part of their corporate social responsibility programme. Despite the fact that it may consume a considerable part of their management time; and sometimes turn them, reluctantly, into figures of controversy.
That’s why a number of leading UK businessmen – among them James Murdoch, Justin King of Sainsbury, Ian Cheshire of Kingfisher, and Carphone Warehouse’s Charles Dunstone – recently wrote a letter to The Times openly proclaiming their opposition to Government plans for a third runway at Heathrow. Even though the project might, in the short term, create new jobs; even though their opposition also brought them into conflict with their natural constituencies at the Confederation of British Industry and the British Chambers of Commerce.
Mostly, however, espousing the cause of sustainability is a lot less controversial. Last week, for example, Cheshire helped to launch Eat Seasonably, an initiative aimed at persuading people to eat fruit and vegetables at their “seasonal best”. It’s the first leg of a two-year programme masterminded by himself and National Trust director-general Dame Fiona Reynolds which, with the backing of both Government and non-governmental organisations, will focus not simply on the food we eat, but the way we run our homes, what we throw away, what we buy and how we use transport.
I asked Cheshire why he was prepared to make such a commitment to the cause. And how he found the time to do it, on top of running a FTSE 100 company.
More in the column this week.