The former boss of B&Q has described how his attitude to deforestation changed after he learned the company’s annual use of timber equated to a forest the size of Switzerland.
Ian Cheshire, former CEO of B&Q and now chair of the We Mean Business Coalition, said when he started out in his career if someone asked where timber came from the answer would be, “From a lorry”, because there was no supply chain visibility.
Speaking to MPs on the Environmental Audit Committee, which is investigating deforestation, Cheshire said: “Most of us in the business world have been conscious of this issue for some time and going back to my B&Q experience, the thing which brought me up short was when we calculated the timber in the kitchens and the wood and everything that we supplied, and then in the broader group, it equated to a forest the size of Switzerland every year.
“And when you think of that sort of direct impact, it really brings it to life. Fortunately that led us to be involved very early on and making sure that said forest was sustainable and could be regenerated.”
He went on: “When I started my business career, I think one my many predecessors at B&Q was asked where does the timber comes from? To which the answer was, ‘It comes from a lorry’, which was the correct answer at the time because we didn't see back down the supply chain.”
Over 190 football pitches worth of deforestation a day is linked to UK supply chains, MPs were told.
Cheshire, also former chairman of Barclays, called for the UK government to introduce greater due diligence laws to tackle supply chain deforestation, and warned that current sustainability certifications are not “legitimate”.
“The business world is extremely concerned to make sure it isn’t inadvertently importing deforestation. One of the big issues is that you can sign up to all these things and then you find the supply chain actually isn't as legitimate as it's been advertised because certification is not straightforward.”
He said the business world has “woken up” to questioning where products come from and whether their supply chains are involved with deforestation activities. “All businesses are very keen to make sure [they aren't] importing deforestation and wanting to use government procurement and due diligence and to make sure.”
He continued: “I think the next frontier is not so much the businesses directly – people like the B&Qs of this world, the Wickes or Homebase – it is much more now the financing of it.
“When I was on the board of Barclays, we had just finally started to try and work out where we were creating projects that could lead to deforestation. I think people understand that deforestation and biodiversity is the next set of challenges coming.”
He said tackling deforestation in supply chains is “much more complicated” than tackling carbon, “but actually probably more vital in some way”.
He called on greater government support to introduce measures to support businesses tackle deforestation. “The business world in my experience is actually willing to engage with us. But it would like clear standard rules and enforceable rules for everyone, as opposed to some of the free riders going out,” he said.
The UK government must “engage extensively with producer nations” rather than “standing there and wagging a finger at people saying it is not okay”.
“We've got to engage in a way which creates incentives locally, looks after the local population and particularly indigenous population and thinks about a broad long term transition.”
Michael Rice, lawyer for forest-risk commodities at Client Earth, also called for greater supply chain regulation.
“The absence of any binding rules in major consumer countries like the UK, like the EU in China is also a driver of deforestation to produce these commodities consumed in those markets,” he said.
“It's not so much a problem of production, but a problem of consumption. And consumption is closely linked to issues of lifestyle culture, but also public health regulation of markets and those are responsibilities for governments.
“So when we talk about what the UK can do, and shifting the dial on this global problem, the obvious answer is to just to show leadership in regulating its own consumption of these commodities.”
The UK Environment Act 2021 includes due diligence reporting on deforestation, which makes it illegal for UK businesses to use key commodities – soya, palm oil, timber, pulp and paper, beef and leather, rubber, and cocoa – if they have not been produced in line with local laws protecting forests and other natural ecosystems.
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