The John Lewis Partnership’s report has the right ingredients, but not enough detail

When Martin Luther King Jr addressed the crowds lining the Lincoln Memorial in August 1962, he started with a bang: “I am happy to join with you today in what will go down as the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation.”

Granted, John Lewis Partnership’s latest corporate responsibility report – A Natural Progression – does not have the claim to history that the civil rights activist’s speech does, but it could have made a better attempt at its opening.

This is a company whose breadth of issues is as diverse as they come, making choosing where to start their report difficult. Between John Lewis and Waitrose, the partnership sells 350,000 different product lines from around 250 stores – everything from gym equipment and jewellery to fresh fruit and footwear. Even its unique employee ownership structure threatens to inject some life into the usually mundane people pages. There’s plenty here with which to lead the performance detail of this 40 page report, but John Lewis chooses customer service as its lure.

The result is the first pages of primary reporting being bogged down in the banal. The report says: “The new ‘essential Waitrose’ identity has been rolled out across 1,400 own-brand, everyday products.” It also says that John Lewis has “recently strengthened our Never Knowingly Undersold promotional material, to better communicate these value messages to our customers”. It’s hardly a compelling first foray into the key sustainability issues.

Back to basics

While John Lewis has failed to make the most of its more appealing work, it delivers on the day-to-day. Stakeholder engagement is presented thoroughly, with information on why and how the company engages, as well as how it responds to specific issues. Some challenging external perspectives would finish the section off nicely.

The report’s corporate responsibility governance pages demonstrate good management. The 2008 strategic review has helped to neatly group priorities into four core areas, making for easy navigation around the report: customers, products and suppliers; people; communities; and the environment.

The company previously separated its corporate responsibility committees between Waitrose, John Lewis and the partnership as a whole. That approach is done away with, all three having been subsumed by one company-wide committee. On the face of it the strategy makes sense, but it becomes confused when the rest of the report, particularly within the commitments, covers Waitrose and John Lewis separately.

Commitments and progress are well presented in a table at the back of the report. However, too many are weak, lacking explicit targets and dates by which to achieve them. Year-on-year comparisons are also missing, rendering it almost impossible to gauge how well the company is performing when they say “we are committed to nurture and develop smaller suppliers and strengthen relationships within the community”.

Like many companies, John Lewis’s flagship environment commitment relates to climate, but unfortunately the company has missed the opportunity to address the full impact of its business, failing to adequately acknowledge the significance of production and use of products on the environment. John Lewis’s approach falls a long way short of Tesco’s ambition to “mobilise a generation of green consumers”.

In placing supplier and customer emissions outside the reporting boundary they have ignored the lion’s share of climate impact. While one would not expect comprehensive data on these, the lack of a strategy for influencing them indicates a flawed materiality assessment. These are its core climate change impacts and a small section on promoting sustainable products is insufficient given the sheer weight of CO2 that is emitted throughout a product’s life.

Otherwise, an impressive CO2 performance per £m of sales is evident, the company having achieved its 20% reduction target by 2020 a decade early. John Lewis has subsequently turned its attention to reversing the upward trend in its absolute carbon emissions – the holy grail of carbon commitments.

The company should be praised for thinking in these terms, but it seems to have announced the plan before it exists. The report does not release a target and casts no light on the conundrum of how to shrink its carbon footprint while growing a business. At this stage all that is stated is that John Lewis will “work through what needs to be done to deliver this commitment”. That shouldn’t detract from the fact it is a positive step, but just a little premature.

So despite this report opening weakly, John Lewis gives it a chance to take off. But unfortunately those opportunities are never really grabbed, leaving it to fall short of its potential.

Alex Parkinson is a consultant at sustainability strategy and communications consultancy Context.


Follows GRI? No
Assured? No
Materiality analysis? No
Goals? Yes
Targets? Yes, but not as many as there could be.
Stakeholder input? Yes, but lacks perspectives to challenge the company.
Seeks feedback? No
Key strengths? Good use of snapshots to present examples and case studies throughout.
Chief weakness? The report teases with moments of potential, but never capitalises on them.
Pleasant surprise? A gallant attempt to explain its interpretation of the greenhouse gas protocol.

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