Secrets of the Pioneers: Ian Cheshire on circular systems and hyper-transparency

Madeleine Cuff
clock • 6 min read

Debenhams chair Sir Ian Cheshire predicts a future where goods are shared not owned, and reams of digital data are used to drive corporate change

Sir Ian Cheshire is chair of the department store Debenhams and chair of Barclays UK, the retail arm of Barclays bank. He was previously chief executive of B&Q and then its parent company Kingfisher. He was knighted in the 2014 New Years' Honours list for services to business, sustainability and the environment.

Where were you in 2007?

I was running B&Q - it was the year before I took over as chief executive of Kingfisher.

We were getting into some of the circular economy work for the first time. There was a sense that summer that the storm clouds of the financial crisis were starting to gather, a feeling things were getting quite uncertain but we needed to move faster on the green agenda. I was encouraged a lot of our supply chain was working with us to make a difference, so it felt like an odd contrast between an increasingly uncertain and dangerous world, and lots of opportunities we were seeing to re-engineer products and rethink business models.

So what has changed in the last decade, and what have you learned?

I think what has changed most has been the degree of shift in technology in that period. If you think 2007 was the year the first iPhone was released it doesn't seem quite possible. On the back of that the mobile internet has completely transformed the world, and in relation to that (but not directly connected) we have seen an explosion in renewables, new materials and batteries.

I think it's the rate of change since 2007 which I have most noticed. It's the hyper transparency that we have now got, and that you can scale things in a way that wasn't possible 10 years. Change seems to happen at a network rate of change. So you get these huge shifts - Facebook suddenly connecting billions rather than just a few people. There's a sense that if you catch the tide on these things change is possible on a faster rate than ever before. Which is good and scary.

What is your vision for the green economy in 10 years' time?

I hope we will have done two big things. One of which is making a more substantial shift towards a circular economy model.

The second part is I think there are real opportunities to rethink how sustainable business can play a role. I think that's reinforced by this technological change of total transparency, and using that to build a different relationship with customers and citizens. I think that's a very different model we could be looking forward to.

What would that look like for the average consumer?

There's probably not one single mega-change. We are not all going to be running around in flying cars I don't think, which is a shame because the Jetsons were rather fun.

I think what you will see emerge is a digitally enabled consumer who is able to understand far more about the impacts of how they behave and what they do, and be able to use that consumer power to help businesses change more.

Fundamentally, the big shift from the consumer's point of view will be an increasing focus on the sharing or gig economy. We are already seeing it with car ownership in certain groups. I think you are going to see a much more digitally enabled, switched on, use-it-when-you-need-it, experience-driven consumer, rather than one who has just got loads of gear.

What top three sustainability challenges will top the agenda in 2027?

Personally, I still think we won't meet the challenge of climate change in the next 10 years. That will still be with us, which is an all-encompassing headline for quite a few other things.

Two is this model of the economy - can we really see a reinvention of the economy from that linear 'take, make, dispose' model to a more circular system?

And then I think you are going to see individual issues. It's interesting society seems to focus on things for five or 10 years, then declare victory and move on to the next thing. So if you think back to the ozone layer, everyone got focused, CFCs got banned and people actually did something about it. I think we are just at the beginning of a 10-year cycle on oceans - not just plastics in our oceans but generally the health of our oceans and the degrees to which that has been not understood.

What's your personal plan for the next 10 years?

One area which interests me is the whole connection between food, farming and the countryside - I'm going to get involved in a project starting later this year on that. It's a side effect of Brexit that the UK could have a rethink of how its economy and farming [interact], because it will be outside of the Common Agricultural Policy for the first time, which is interesting.

Then the other question, which I still think is not on the agenda enough, is the sustainability of cities. So much of the world's population is moving to cities and they can be great engines of sustainability if we build them and run them right.

Will the world be on course for two degrees in 2027?

I'm a little pessimistic. I think what we are seeing is the first really big shift in power generation that we have seen certainly in my lifetime. But I think it will require a lot more in the way of things like electric car growth to make it really happen.

But I think what's most important - and this is not being unfair on us in the UK - is the shift in the Chinese leadership, the realisation they simply can't have unsustainable growth, which makes me more optimistic about the future.

If you could invest in one clean technology through to 2027 which would it be and why?

I'm very interested in the whole area of materials sciences and the ability to make things which could, for example, replace aluminium, things which allow batteries to work on a completely different basis. I think you are going to see some very fundamental changes courtesy of materials science.

What advice would you give to a sustainability professional starting out today?

If you are starting out the two bits of advice I always give to people in an organisation is figure out the unique contribution that organisation can make. Don't try and do everything. If you are in the car industry reinvent that one, don't fret about the other ones.

The second one is unleash the power of the consumer and the transparent world that we have, and all the data that is out there to make change.

Are you optimistic or pessimistic about the future?

I'm optimistic, because I think we have got to the point where enough people are worried and we have seen some of the big players like China come to an understanding that things can't carry on in a straight line.

The main reason why I am optimistic though is because I am a profound believer in human creativity, and I think we will find solutions even if they are not easy or straightforward.

This interview is part of a series, entitled Secrets of the Pioneers, which is to be published in association with Greenhouse PR to mark BusinessGreen's 10th anniversary. The full series, including interviews with Jonathon Porritt, Lord Stuart Rose, and Lord Stern, will be published on the day of the BusinessGreen Leaders' Summit next month.

You can book your place for the summit here.

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