The chief executive of DIY retailer Kingfisher has called for a radical reappraisal of capitalism that focuses on wellbeing rather than growth.
In one of the most devastating critiques of the current “unsustainable” economic system by a mainstream business leader, Ian Cheshire warned that companies that do not adapt to a resource constrained future will go out of business in the longer term.
Cheshire said B&Q was rethinking its whole business model and was examining a number of options including shifting from selling products, such as power drills, to leasing them.
His belief in the scale of change that is needed goes further than other leading companies in the field of sustainability, such as Unilever and Procter & Gamble, that believe they can decouple growth from environmental impacts by creating products with fewer resources and by changing consumer behaviour.
In an article for Guardian Sustainable Business ahead of a WWF and Abundancy Partners conference on systemic change, he wrote: “Infinite high resource intensity growth is simply not possible, and we are already living off our future capital. It may be gradual but most businesses will have to adjust to a very different reality. That reality will still be a version of capitalism, and needs to be a positive vision rather than a doom-laden return to the stone age, but it needs to rethink the point of the system. Instead of the goal of maximum linear growth in GDP, we should be thinking of maximum wellbeing for minimal planetary input.
“That starts to challenge business to go beyond efficiency gains, useful though they are, and really redesign their business models. So, for example, we as retailers are examining how we might shift from selling items such as a power drill to selling the use of it, perhaps through leasing or fractional ownership.
“The other possibility is for us to redesign products in a cradle to cradle context, so that we run the whole recycling loop, making our value-add from controlling the component materials in the product rather than a one-time fire and forget sale.”
Cheshire’s call for a need to reframe capitalism is similar to recent analysis by Tim Jackson, professor of sustainable development at the University of Surrey, who has been seeking to expose the notion that our wealth and happiness are predicated on continual economic growth.
He is convinced the consumerist fixation with accumulating products and services is fuelling fears and anxieties, rather than bringing contentment.
Jackson, author of Prosperity without Growth, said: “There is a real fear around shifting from our existing economic system because people believe it gives us social organisation, a sense of freedom and the ability to be nice to each other. Growth is seen as a social lubricant that allows us to be socially responsible.
“But by behaving as we do, we are heading for resource scarcity, which is actually the point at which our civility is really put to the test; then it will matter whether we have strong social norms that are able to support us in acting as moral beings rather than barbarians.”
Cheshire said it was hard for companies in the middle of the most protracted downturn for a generation to think about re-imagining the future, but that those who take a leap of faith would be rewarded with long-term profitability.
While the stress on the natural world from global economic activity is all too apparent, Cheshire said it was difficult for businesses to get their heads round the implications because they are so deeply wedded to the current system.
“It is very hard when you are inside one paradigm, to really visualise a different one,” he wrote. “The second challenge is that businesses get comfortable with success and tend to treat new developments with suspicion, creating a sort of tissue rejection. Because of this, we need to work with the commercial grain of the organisation to make change happen, rather than leave it to a specialist CSR department. Unless the commercial teams embrace this change and see it as creating opportunity, it will not succeed. The unlock is to see this crisis as creating opportunity for the leaders of change, and harnessing all our human ingenuity.”
While there are few financiers or politicians who are prepared to talk about the scale of change that is needed, Cheshire is one of a growing number of corporate leaders who are starting to speak out.
Sir Stuart Rose, in one of his last speeches before retiring as chairman of Marks & Spencer, said that the retailer was only a tenth of the way to becoming a sustainable company.
He warned: “We have to change, not a little but radically. Not later, but now. Not with today’s business thinking but with a new set of skills. And we have to do this with energy and we have to understand that there is no plan B, as there isn’t in Marks & Spencer.
“Certainly there will be some businesses that survive with unsustainable business models. They will survive for another decade, they may survive for two decades. But eventually, even those of us who recognise the need for change cannot underestimate the scale of change we need to make or the duration of time it’s going to need to make the change we need to do.”
Jo Confino is an executive editor of the Guardian and chairman and editorial director of Guardian Sustainable Business