Interview - Chris Harrop, director of sustainability, Marshalls

"Carbon is cash," says Chris Harrop, who is not only trying to woo suppliers and consumers on sustainability, but succeeding.

Chris Harrop, director of sustainability, Marshalls - image: HW
Chris Harrop, director of sustainability, Marshalls - image: HW

Business remains strong at Marshalls thanks in no small part to a sales boom in low-carbon, ethically-sourced products. The smart money is on sustainability, insists a man hailed as a "top ethical influencer", and it is time the Government wised up.

Q: Has the recession done for green products?

A: No. The strongest growth is in environmental and ethical product areas. The market is under pressure, but the consumers who are spending are spending wisely. If you are worried about the economic situation you want to buy the best products. We are seeing a move towards more environmental goods such as low-carbon permeable paving and high ethical standards. A lot of people say in recession you buy the cheapest, but that's not the evidence I see. People are buying wisely, which is a different thing altogether.

Q: Where does the company stand on ethics?

A: We have extended our Fairstone products, which is a fairly-traded stone range sourced from India. We are involved with several community programmes that ensure living wages and fund community schools. A full-time auditor in India makes daily checks on quarries and we are extending the range to products sourced in China. I'm off there next week to look at training and auditing on health and safety and working hours. Having a properly-accredited supply chain gives customers confidence, but it's vital that we are able to show the members in the supply chain that they too will benefit from more volume and sales.

Q: You are marked as a top ethical influencer. Is this an accolade or albatross?

A: I feel pressure, but good pressure. It's easy to spout loads of green or ethical wash, but if you say you have a low-carbon product you must be able to prove it credibly - in this case with the Carbon Trust. The pressure is to back up everything we say and keep reducing those footprints while improving business. But that's all good. It's important that we continue to lead the sustainable debate because there's so much confusion and potential for confusion.

Q: Is the Government doing enough on green issues?

A: The jury remains out. There are good intentions and announcements and a fair degree of pragmatism. But, as always, implementation is the hard thing. Take a look at the Flood & Water Management Act - there are still local authorities that have not changed their planning rules. If we have another winter of floods, it's no good asking why it happened, because we have legislation. It needs implementing. We could be a leader in green technology and ethical services, which would be good for UK plc and put us in a very strong position.

Q: Is Marshalls not too massive for your lone voice?

A: We don't have a sustainability department - this issue can't be dumped on to the shoulders of two or three people in a dark room. And it's not just a sentence or two under the vague headline of corporate social responsibility. It has to thread itself through the entire company ethos because it is about how you work. All the effort on sustainability is embedded into every aspect or what we do because we are talking business processes and efficiency.

Q: How do you embed that ethos?

A: One example is our register of landscapers, of which we have 1,750 "gangs". We have 10 assessors who do nothing but assess quality of work and train people on areas such as computer-aided design, the environmental benefits of permeable paving and how to lay it. But we mustn't lose sight of customer service, so we are piloting a new scheme to train our members on offering a more design-led service. Landscapers are good at installing products, but putting that creativity on paper and calculating quantities may not be one of their strong cards.

Q: Do you find that suppliers are hard to win round?

A: They are often suspicious whenever you talk about something new and the first question is: "What will it cost?" The reality is, if done properly, sustainability saves money and improves business. We see carbon as cash - the more efficient you are the less energy you use and the smaller your carbon footprint. You get more productivity for the same amount of energy. Reducing carbon footprints is to take out cost and inefficiency from your supply chain.

Q: What is next on the company's agenda?

A: We are involved in the UN Global Compact business initiative and went to an event last month to look at the 10 principles of the compact - including labour, human rights, environment, anti-corruption measures. We took along our top 20 suppliers to see where they can help us improve. Sustainability, after all, makes perfect business, as well as moral sense.

1986: Degree, then MBA, Manchester Metropolitan University
1991: Advertising executive, JWT agency
1996: Global sector development manager, Shell
2002: Director of sustainability, Marshalls

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