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.
Back in September 2022 there were two announcements in the space of a week that highlighted just how seriously the retail industry can take the sustainability agenda.
First, Patagonia founder, Yvon Chouinard, revealed he was giving away his business to make Planet Earth its “only shareholder”. All profit not reinvested in the business has been designated to fighting climate change, in a noteworthy statement of intent related to how Patagonia views its role in society.
Then, one week later, cosmetics and home personal care brand Faith in Nature unveiled its plans to put “nature on the board” – giving the environment a voice in each company decision.
Green Retail World was delighted to cover such stories. They highlight the extent to which businesses can change their structure in the name of environmental welfare and tackling the climate crisis.
Faith in Nature director of sustainability, Laura Ford, says the work with Earth Law Center and Lawyers For Nature, which resulted in her brand becoming legally bound to make nature a company director, has “changed what was thought to be possible in UK corporate law”.
“It’s an amazing thing to be part of, and I’m sure it will evolve in time,” she explains to this publication.
“I have no doubt we’ll adapt it, as will others who adopt this approach.”
What nature’s seat in the boardroom looks like
Ford and her fellow directors are getting used to the new set-up, with the two legal firms Faith in Nature brought in to create the landmark new structure currently in the ‘proxy role’ of nature in the boardroom. In due course, others will take on the position representing nature’s interests – and the recruitment process for that will start later this year.
“Nature on the board means we have an uncompromising moral compass that has no other considerations within their portfolio,” explains Ford, who argues that humankind’s relationship with nature has “broken down” even though the two are intrinsically linked.
“Nature is something we – including businesses – should consider at every point. There was even a suggestion that a tree should sit in the meeting room as a visible reminder of its presence.”
Ford says the company had some “trepidation” when putting the plans into place but the decision to do so has empowered the whole organisation to think about the environment when developing strategy.
“It’s powerful having someone in the room – or on Microsoft Teams as it tends to be – eyeballing you and saying what ‘would nature say?’. It makes my day every time I hear someone saying it.”
Ford, who describes her eco sensibilities as “dark green”, acknowledges even in her role as sustainability director it can be difficult when company strategy is questioned by nature – especially when it involves questioning decisions made at great length. But that is the point; battling the climate crisis is going to mean retailers and brands face some tough challenges and difficult decision-making.
“Nature has a vote and I have a vote on boardroom issues,” she says, adding that she and nature could vote differently, although it would be “unlikely”.
Sometimes, she notes, it can be too challenging to go with the most sustainable option due to practical reasons. In this situation, nature’s presence on the board is a reminder to do better next time and continue to uncover more eco-friendly ways of operating.
“Every now and then you have to choose the ‘good enough’ option knowing there are practical and logistical complications we need to get around,” notes Ford.
“Nature in its boardroom role doesn’t have to compromise, though, because they are independent of the business – they are there only to represent the rights of nature.”
B Corp – the next evolution
Faith in Nature received B Corp status in June, and Ford was delighted the work she and her team put in to achieve this target was recognised, saying the brand’s long-running mantra and newly established framework sit comfortably alongside B-Corp’s own values.
For the good of the environment, she’s keen the B Corp movement continues to evolve and set higher standards for entry. There is a recognition from regulator, B Lab, too, that this needs to happen – and the wheels are in motion for changes.
So, what would Ford like to see from the community, which is in place to encourage businesses to pay equal attention to people, profit, and planet?
Although she views B Corp as “much more than eco certification”, Ford suggests companies can go through it with a high score in some areas and not so much in others due to the broad range of factors it monitors.
“B Lab undertook a large public consultation piece around its methodology last year and a minimum score in each category would be a great thing to see come out of it.”
Ford is also hopeful B Lab will give more credence to nature on the board and other innovative purposeful businesses structures. She talks up Patagonia and Tony’s Chocolonely for their strong work putting purpose-led work at the heart of their existence.
“It’d be great to see a range of the corporate governance frameworks incorporated into the B Corp methodology. We’re part of a cohort of businesses looking to push at what is possible for purpose and a profit-making business.”
Environmental awareness becoming ingrained
In the way nature and environmental awareness has been built into Faith in Nature’s decision-making process, it is also becoming ingrained in the National Curriculum and in schools across the UK.
That gives Ford hope the disconnection between nature and business that arguably accelerated in the 20th century, but which has shown signs of being restored in more recent years, will not happen again.
“There has never been so much awareness about eco matters and the importance of tackling climate change as there is now,” she says, adding it’s difficult not to be aware of the big issues the planet faces, which is a “really powerful” situation to be in.
Faith in Nature is looking to work with other businesses to ensure the corporate world plays its part in tackling environmental problems. It has made available the legal basis of putting nature on the board, meaning any business can follow the brand’s pioneering work.
“The crucial thing is that any business can do this; they don’t have to be completely squeaky clean. We’re not perfect by any stretch of the imagination – any business can do it.”
Ford says one way Faith in Nature is measuring the success of its recent legal structure change is by the number of businesses that follow suit and put nature on their own boards.
The brand also started crowdfunding in June – an unusual step for a 50-year-old business. The pre-registration period on Crowdcube ended today and is now at ‘early access’ stage, and Faith in Nature says the funding will help it increase brand awareness, ramp up sustainable product innovation and supply chain efficiency, and help make its manufacturing processes even greener than they are today.
Faith in Nature is a unique business and revels in its points of difference. Green Retail World will be tracking the ways its fresh approach influences the wider retail sector in the coming years.
At Green Retail World, we are giving retail executives and industry leaders, like Laura Ford, 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: Donna Ford]