Mr Sustainability: Stephen Cawley

Mr Sustainability: Stephen Cawley

Stephen Cawley has the task of ensuring John Lewis puts its money where its mouth is when it comes to ethics and the environment

By Abby Trow
Cawley's job is to be keen, green and not mean when it comes to working with small suppliers in far off lands

Stephen Cawley began his career in retail the '80s as a graduate trainee and is now John Lewis' Head of Sustainability and Responsible Sourcing. He needs to know all about the people and businesses that supply John Lewis so he can ensure the supply chain is as green as possible all the way down the line.

It's not a job for the faint-hearted. Stephen Cawley, Head of Sustainability and Responsible Sourcing for everyone's favourite retailer, John Lewis, has some 1200 factories in 52 countries on his books and each one has to be audited to ensure they are not places where human rights are violated. 'It is a huge and challenging task to understand what is happening with our suppliers,' says Cawley, who joined John Lewis in 2006.

He does not, of course, fly around the world dropping in on factories on a daily basis. John Lewis commissions third parties to audit on its behalf and it is involved with SMETA (Sedex Members Ethical Trade Audit), which allows it to access data on factories that have been audited on behalf of other businesses. 'We take those reports and then drill down into them, so we understand how those factories are operating, what areas they need to work on and improve.' 

John Lewis products are all considered on sustainability grounds
Smoke glass Design Project 001 lamp, £160
The John Lewis sustainable product identifer logo - look out for it
Lots of top names are sold at John Lewis, such as Orla Kierly
Fusion natural fibre storage basket

'It's a green maze out there'

There are, Cawley says, 'drop dead' topics, such has bonded child labour, which unfortunately still exists in parts of India and Bangladesh and east Asia. Surprisingly, or perhaps not, the mention of child labour does not always make John Lewis run a mile.

'Child labour is a symptom of poverty,' says Cawley.  'If the children in question are teenagers, we might look at education for 14-15 year olds working in that factory. So if we decide, OK, we will work with you, we set our parameters, which might be that the teenagers receive education and work only for a set amount of time a day.' John Lewis will then work with local NGOs to see that social welfare is addressed by the factory owners. 'And social welfare is a huge challenge in many parts of the world. We need factories where people make lovely products, but we want to do all we can to see that the people who make the products are treated well.'

Cawley is a huge fan of the Fair Trade movement, but it's not viable for all of John Lewis product to be certified Fair Trade. 'We do our best, but other countries have different cultures and there is a huge amount of cottage industry, for example in India, where it's a family business and children might be involved. Now that doesn't always mean those children are being treated cruelly. For us, as a business, we try to get suppliers working at a level of health and safety that we are comfortable with.'

The crucial aspect of Cawley's job is to address issues of sustainability. A few years back John Lewis put together a sustainable product identifier on items which are energy efficient, for example, or save water, in a bid to help customers reduce their carbon footprints. Cawley acknowledges 'it's a green maze out there', with some credible marks people know (FSC wood, Fair Trade, Soil Association Organic), but notes there is still a  lot of unsubstantiated green hype which his employer is trying to cut through.

Caring about people means caring about the environment and John Lewis believes it has a role to play in offering unbiased advice to customers who want to reduce their carbon footprint. 'John Lewis does care about the environment (it sponsors The Big Butterfly Count for example) ..we don't get into debates about climate change, but we all know many natural resources are finite.... Customers want to know which products can help them save energy or use less water, and our identifier points out which products do what.'

Cawley says the company doesn't want to be accused of eco fascism, nor does it sit on the fence. 'We do take action when we think it's the right thing to do. For example, there are products we have stopped selling on environmental grounds, such as patio heaters.' (three cheers everyone...) He also discloses that he and his team are debating whether to continue selling outdoor whirlpool baths. Well don't sound so you really need to wile away an evening in a hot tub on your patio in December... might it not be an indulgence too far?

So forget hot tubs, think about water-saving taps and shower heads and A-rated washing machines or even better, triple A rated washing machines, which John Lewis is delighted to sell by the lorry load.