Marija Rompani, sustainability boss for John Lewis Partnership

Seeds of Change interview: John Lewis Partnership sustainability boss on the group’s plan for nature

A series where we talk to retail’s movers and shakers about how they are tackling the challenge of becoming a greener business in an industry that is far from green – assessing organisational change, eco initiatives, and much more.

Green Retail World broke news of Waitrose’s in-store soft plastics recycling scheme last week, but the focus on packaging and preventing materials ending up in landfill is only one part of an expansive environmental strategy at the John Lewis Partnership (JLP).

While that was the latest announcement, no aspect of eco strategy at JLP is viewed as more important than another, according to its sustainability boss Marija Rompani.

JLP’s eco roadmap, its ‘plan for nature’ which has been adopted by both its John Lewis and Waitrose businesses, was announced in October 2022. At the heart of it is a tie-up with conservation group WWF and seven commitments to help restore and protect nature, moving the retail group towards more circular business models and greater levels of carbon reduction across its supply chain.

Rompani, who is JLP’s director of ethics & sustainability, says: “All these things are interconnected, and we really need to tackle them simultaneously.

“We can’t tackle biodiversity loss without understanding how food is produced, where raw materials are coming from, and if there is deforestation in the supply chain. And we can’t address issues of nature without getting into more circular business models.”

As a result, Rompani says, business environmental strategy has to fundamentally be about finding ways of extracting fewer resources from nature and more closely considering the end-to-end lifecycle of products, source materials, and packaging.

It’s an all-encompassing job, but evidence of JLP’s progress continues to emerge.

The Waitrose soft plastic recycling initiative, which is being run in partnership with Impact Recycling to ensure all waste collected is reprocessed in the UK, is one example. And the launch of the spring-summer (SS2023) John Lewis homeware collection provides another.

Indeed, Green Retail World spoke to Rompani at the launch of the SS2023 range, which took place at the partnership’s Peter Jones department store in west London. Within that range are several items that match JLP’s promise of using more recycled materials in its own-brand, Anyday, products.

One plan for nature commitment is to “ensure all key raw materials in own-brand products come from more sustainable or recycled sources by 2025”, and that is being brought to life, for example, in a new sofa which contains fabric made from 100% recycled materials and an outdoor rug composed of 272 recycled plastic bottles.

Rompani says her department has worked closely with other John Lewis divisons and its supplier base to accelerate this material change.

“Since we launched the nature report we have worked with designers, buyers, and commercial to work out our main commitments,” she explains.

“We’re looking at durability, recyclability, and better manufacturing. We’re working with manufacturing sites to implement new standards.”

Making commitments and then following through with those promises “is a long process”, Rompani explains, but she is positive about the direction of travel JLP is on.

All in it together

Many retailers are going through a period of supply chain analysis to increase transparency about where their products were made and the conditions in which they were produced.

JLP is keen to take its suppliers on a journey with them, fostering an environment where eco-best practice best practice is continually shared, according to Rompani.

“We don’t tend to change manufacturers unless suppliers are really not compliant or if they are have declining standards,” she notes.

“If you just drop a supplier without improving their standards, that supplier will find another customer who won’t care. So they will continue to impact [the planet]. We tend to work with our suppliers to improve their own standards.”

Rompani argues this approach helps “influence the supply chain”. Her method is “let’s work together, allow suppliers get better, and we will get better’, arguing this can help improve the wider industry’s practices.

John Lewis Partnership announces new environmental strategy
Rompani announces the John Lewis Partnership plan for nature at Waitrose Cookery School in London, in October

What does the JLP sustainability team look like?

Rompani arrived at JLP in January 2021, following two years at Hermes Investment Management and – before that – she spent a year as Sainsbury’s group corporate responsibility manager. Although many environmental, social and governance (ESG) roles in the workplace today are relatively new, Rompani’s career has been focused on ESG since she graduated from university in the late 1990s.

Notable early roles of hers included environmental auditor at BSI and head of environment at UBS. With such a background, she’s had plenty of experience successfully embedding ESG-thinking into businesses.

The JLP sustainability and ethics team has doubled under her leadership, and she says “the commitment is there” from the executive team to drive forward with the work her department is doing.

“There was duplication – we had roles looking at responsible sourcing and plastic impact for both John Lewis and Waitrose, but we now have a team that looks after sustainability and ethics strategy across both,” Rompani explains.

There is a team which looks after sourcing of food and non-food, animal welfare, fresh produce, and human rights across the partnership. There is also an environmental team overseeing issues to do with biodiversity, climate change, circularity, food waste, and waste in general.

Additionally, the partnership has a health and social impact team covering partnerships and the health of customers.

“It’s like managing two different businesses,” Rompani points out.

“In Waitrose the main issues are around food systems, and the impact of production on climate and biodiversity, and food waste, plastic packaging, and deforestation from palm oil, as well as the need to eat more plant-based protein.”

For John Lewis, she adds, the core focus is around developing circular business models, and how to bring products to market that have less impact on the natural world and follow more circular designer principles.

“The trends of both businesses are different and my team needs to be across all of it, so sometimes it’s really challenging – it’s about problem solving and with environmental strategy we can’t always map out a clear road from A to B.”

All of this is playing out against a backdrop of growing scrutiny on environmental practices and communication. The Competition and Markets and Advertising Standards authorities are starting to clamp down on and call out brands making unsubstantiated ‘green’ claims, for example.

“My team are the gatekeepers – we check everything that goes out,” adds Romani, who acknowledges it can be challenging to rein in the “enthusiasm” of marketing teams when it comes to conveying messages about the green agenda.

Collaboration and shaping the legislation

From carbon emission reporting to the Waste Electrical & Electronic Equipment Directive, and from mounting packaging regulation to the imminent deposit return scheme in Scotland and the wider UK thereafter, there is plenty of eco-related legislation retailers must now meet.

“There is legislation, but it’s not enough,” says Rompani.

“I don’t think businesses should wait around for the government to announce new rules, they need to take the initiative themselves.”

She adds: “My advice is don’t sit and wait for the government to legislate something to give you the structure, I think we as businesses need to be working with policymakers to come up with the best possible legislation – it’s challenging but achievable.”

JLP is already lobbying government on animal welfare, calling for a standard way of reporting in this area. Rompani also says it would be useful to have more universal eco-related labelling to help customers make more informed purchasing choices.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimates global greenhouse gas emissions must peak before 2025, and be reduced by 43% by 2030 to stave off climate-related catastophes.

JLP’s is working through an array of targets focused on making it a greener business, with John Lewis and Waitrose each tackling some of the biggest challenges head on. But can the partnership and, indeed, the wider business community achieve the ambitious net zero targets and carbon reduction goals they have set?

Rompani notes: “I wouldn’t use the word ‘hopeful’ because I believe we can get there but it requires innovation, persistence, and resilience.

“’Hopeful’ sounds like it’s not in our control – but it is in our control – it’s about working together to make things happen.”

She continues: “It’s not a competition. I think it’s good our competitors are doing as good or better than us when it comes to sustainability, I always say it’s great retailers are achieving things. We’re learning from each other and that’s the beauty of the sustainability community – it is collaborative.”

More updates on JLP’s environmental progress will emerge in April, when the partnership publishes its Ethics & Sustainability Report 2022/23. You can take a look at last year’s report, here, to gauge the direction of travel.

At Green Retail World, we are giving retail executives and industry leaders, like Marija Rompani, a chance to explain how they are enacting environmental change within their organisations. Please contact editor, Ben Sillitoe, if you’d like to put yourself forward for an interview on this key subject. Sharing good practice can help the wider sector move in a positive direction.

[Image credit: John Lewis Partnership]

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