“It is not about listing niche green products that our consumers don’t buy. Or ticking boxes. This is about sales through the till and a material part of our business.”
Researching how brands encourage sustainability can be a challenge, sometimes their activities are hidden away in an obscure part of the corporate website, or located in a PDF which on finishing you realise is actually from 2011 or simply not there at all. That’s why it was refreshing to learn more about Kingfisher, Europe's leading home improvement retailer, who operate 1,200 stores in 10 countries in Europe, (not to be confused with the Indian brewing and aviation brand) you’ll probably be most familiar with their main retail brands of B&Q, Castorama, Brico Dépôt and Screwfix.
Today our Editor Luke Upton speaks exclusively to Caroline Laurie, Head of Sustainability at Kingfisher (a role she job shares with her colleague, Becky Coffin), and was speaker at Bio-Based Products World in Amsterdam in April 2016, on taking a collaborative approach, working with customers and exceeding standards.
An accountant by training, Caroline joined B&Q in 2005, overseeing Christmas and garden leisure, during her time in this role she was instrumental in the decision to remove all gas patio heaters from B&Q UK. In 2009 she joined a two year change management programme as a project manager to transform stock replenishment within B&Q UK. Following that programme’s successful roll-out in 2012 she was asked to join the company’s new energy saving proposition as a business development manager – designed to help customers reduce their home’s energy use. It was then a natural step for Caroline into her current role as Kingfisher’s Head of Sustainability who speaks to us today, and is also a leading speaker at Bio-Based Products in Amsterdam on May 24-25th May.
Luke Upton (LU): Thanks for the time today. Kingfisher has a history in responsible business, particularly in sustainable forestry. But in 2012, you launched Net Positive, a group-wide sustainability strategy. Perhaps we could begin with learning a little more about that?
Caroline Laurie (CL): Not a problem Luke. Net Positive was announced in 2012, and driven by the passion of our former Chief Executive, Ian Cheshire. The aim was to go just beyond being neutral, but do actually make a positive contribution when it came to sustainability and to become a restorative company. Within this we identified four areas within the group where we could make a big difference: timber, energy, innovation and communities. And since then the agenda has kept changing, and have now evolved from an aspiration into a very practical state of delivery.
LU: It’s an impressive part of the business but what does Net Positive actually mean for your customers?
CL: It aims to support our customers in creating a good home, whether they be homeowners or trade professionals. And for us a good home is a sustainable home, it is home that is cheap to run and free of toxins. For our customers, we don’t use the term Net Positive. We work on finding messaging which resonates with our customers, focussing on customer benefits that go beyond just sustainability
Let me give you an example, a product we sell in B&Q, it is called Clean Spirit an alternative to White Spirit. Its non-toxic, its non-flammable and so safer in the home, for children, pets and to transport. It does the job as well as White Spirit. And we wouldn’t sell it for premium so it goes on the shelves at the same price. We promote heavily in-store. And this magic combination of performance and cost plus the benefits means sales are in line with the normal product.
Another would be B&Q’s sustainable easyGrow bedding plant innovation which has a similar popular combination of benefits making life easier and less messy for gardeners and virtually eliminating peat and wasteful polystyrene.
LU: So in your internal analysis, where is Net Positive at the moment?
CL: 25% of all products we sell are defined as a sustainable product. Be it certified timber, highly rated appliances, low-flow taps, low toxic products low VOC paint. And we are making good progress towards hitting our goal of 50% by 2020. We have a commercial model for delivering Net Positive and these targets are sales driven. It is not about listing niche green products that our consumers don’t buy. Or ticking boxes. This is about sales through the till and a material part of our business.
Our customers expect us to do the right thing. We want to avoid greenwashing, every claim we make we want to be very transparent and have substantive evidence. And we have external partners as well – who check and challenge us on this area.
LU: It’s clearly progressing well and the Clean Spirit story is a great example but it’s not always that straight forward. What are some of the challenges in your products becoming Net Positive?
CL: It’s changing the way things are done, so there will always be challenges. Typically the non-sustainable route is the most developed over the years. And securing the required quantities can be a barrier. But with our size and presence we can actually positively encourage the market to make these changes. We also look to collaborate with others in the industry, working with IKEA and Unilever amongst others. External collaboration is as key as internal in making these kind of changes.
LU: Dealing with such a wide variety of suppliers, how do you manage Net Positive down through your supply chain?
CL: It’s something we thought about very carefully, and have developed our ‘Sustainable Product Guidelines’ alongside sustainability experts Bioregional. They were developed to create a definition, there’s two levels – ‘compliance’ and ‘best in practice’. Our compliance level is a step up from the normal industry level. And we review every year to make sure the definitions are still really stretching us and our compliance levels are above the rest of the industry. Our ‘best in class’ levels gets harder every year.
Tools like the ‘Sustainable Product Guidelines’ are the kind of tools you need when speaking to people who aren’t sustainability experts. Being a major company, and employing 79,000 staff we need to translate a sustainable view into practical tools that enable you not to say ‘on top of your normal job, can you please think about doing this as well’ into saying ‘by doing this, you’ll become better at your job.’ Again, it’s collaboration and ultimately improving the business for everyone.
LU: Thanks, and just to finish up, I am always interested to hear which other sustainable brands professionals like yourselves particularly admire?
CL: I always look to Method who make eco-friendly cleaning products made with non-toxic ingredients. They completely reinvented cleaning. Building a real end-to-end product offering, complete with stylish packaging and tone of voice. The customer knows the product is as efficient and does the job as well as any other leading brands. I think you always have to start with this premise.
The history around green products has often been they are more expensive, not particularly visually appealing, and they don’t work as well. They appeal to that small ‘deep green’ segment. Whereas Kingfisher is all about want to be offering great products that offer the same level of delivery, look great and are the right price.
LU:' That's great, thanks so much Caroline.
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