Your Royal Highness, thank you for your inspirational words this morning, and for your tireless work as our President.
May I just begin by saying how welcome your visit to the Somerset levels this week was for those living there. You brought much needed support, and very practical help in the form of your Countryside Fund, a BITC initiative which is supported by many of our member companies.
For more than thirty years you have brought together an intricate network of businesses and created charities to tackle some of the most complex issues faced by society, and BITC has been at the very heart of your work.
When I first became Chairman three years ago, I felt the best way of helping BITC become even more efficient was to simplify our work. That’s when we developed the five pillars – marketplace sustainability, workplace, employment, education, enterprise. Such an approach has worked well, up to a point. But I’ve realised that an agenda of oversimplification is sometimes the folly of choice of marketeers and time-pressed business folk.
I came to this conclusion walking along the Jurassic coast, near where I live. It’s the spiritual home of fossil hunting, and I’ve become something of a keen naturalist with an interest in birds, bugs and butterflies. It’s humbling to appreciate the complexity of the ecosystems that support nature, and indeed our own human species.
But the most wonderful thing I’ve observed about nature is, despite its complexity, it has an extraordinary ability to work in harmony. Just take the humble honeybee, pollinating flowers. A world without honeybees is a world without flowers, or, indeed, crops to feed us. Or the complex ecosystems of the tropical rainforests which are the lungs of the world. Or even the rhino, which willingly allows the red-billed oxpecker bird to perch on his back and feed on parasites which otherwise might hurt him. These are just a few examples of the infinite remarkable acts of collaboration in our complex natural world.
Like any ecosystem, BITC depends on a similar series of complex interactions and relationships, particularly as we forge our contract between society and business to help both those worlds. The companies that work so hard to help us achieve that goal are key elements in this intricate socio-economic web, which has great power.
Just listen to what we have done. We have over 800 member companies. Thousands of businesses are engaged on our campaigns across the country. To take just three examples: fifty thousand young people have benefited from our Business Class work with schools; three thousand people have gone through our Ready to Work programme; and thanks to all of you, the proportion of people volunteering in working hours has risen by 25%.
We are creating jobs, we are raising aspirations, and we are giving a helping hand where it’s needed, not least through our one hundred Business Connectors. And our network is global, with partners in 65 countries. So thank you to those who have given so much time and effort, and have responded to the Prince of Wales’ challenge to us to make a difference.
I do now want to extend a very warm welcome to our new members who joined this year. It’s great to have you on board, and I hope we have demonstrated the scale and power of the network you have joined. It’s hugely rewarding, but it does take effort and commitment.
When I became Chairman, the Prince of Wales charged me with improving collaboration between BITC and his Royal Highness’ Charities and beyond. I thought it would be best if I could prove this worked in Waitrose first, and it most certainly does.
Here are some examples of how. Waitrose is one of the sponsors of Give & Gain global volunteering Day, and we’re taking part again this year. Last year 1,000 of our partners helped 50,000 school children eat more healthy diets as part of this programme.
Waitrose is sponsoring Responsible Business Week. And through our involvement with Ready to Work we have helped 22 young people between the ages of 16 and 25. We are involving ourselves in BITC’s Business Class, we’ve helped six of our branch managers become Business Connectors. We support BITC’s Start campaign.
And, like many here, Waitrose also works with The Prince’s Trust, supporting 84 16 to 24 year olds through The Prince’s Trust’s wonderful Get into Work programme. We donate to the Prince’s Countryside Fund, and The Prince's Rural Action programme. We support The Prince’s Foundation for Building Community, and the Cambridge Programme for Sustainability Leadership, as well as the International Sustainability Unit.
These activities involve thousands of Waitrose partners in hundreds of locations, and in many many different workstreams. It brings an enormous sense of fulfilment to them, and support to the communities which we serve.
Outside of Waitrose, I’m proud of the way that Stephen and the team at BITC are now working much more closely with The Prince’s Charities, including The Prince’s Trust, the University of Cambridge Programme for Sustainability Leadership, The Prince’s Foundation for Building Communities, The Prince’s Regeneration Trust and The Prince’s Initiative for Mature Enterprise. And of course, every one of our Business Connectors is briefed on all of these charities and our wider work.
In addition, we build strong relationships with other charities, including the National Council of Voluntary Organisations, the environmental regeneration charity Groundwork, housing associations and arts organisations. Islamic charities are supported through the Mosaic programme, and Sportinspired is the charity partner for BITC’s Give & Gain Day this year. And later today we’ll hold the first BITC Scotland collaborative board meeting, a huge step forward which I hope will bring benefits for both organisations.
This brings me to the final partnership I want to talk about, which is of crucial importance. It’s the partnership that business has with government. I like to call it a contract and it goes something like this.
Government’s role is to create the conditions for companies to be successful. This is the only way an economy and a society can flourish over the long term. How else can the NHS, or the education system, emergency services, social services and our defence be paid for, unless there is a thriving economy with corporations paying corporation tax and other business taxes, and employing people who then also pay tax? Be under no illusion, it is only the business sector which can continue the rebuilding of our economy, not the other way round.
The government is doing a great deal to fulfil their side of the contract, and in return, companies must bear a heavy responsibility to the communities they serve. You understand this, or you wouldn’t be here today. You recognise the need to contract ethically with all of your stakeholders, customers, suppliers, the communities in which you trade, and your employees. You believe in your responsibility to reduce your impact on the environment and where possible, improve it.
Through business engagement in social issues, the impact can be spectacular, actually saving the taxpayer money, as well as motivating employees. This is good business. How can you tell a good business from the rest? When the company’s belief in its wider responsibility goes beyond the bottom line, and is in the very DNA of that business.
I hope you will take away today an understanding that there is a virtuous circle of partnership between good business and wider society, and between government and business. Because if good business thrives, then the country thrives.
My experience over the last thirty years in the John Lewis Partnership, and during my time as Chairman of BITC, tells me that there are more sustainable models that our wider group of businesses now want to embrace.
Let me quote the words of Vaclav Havel, former President of Czechoslovakia and architect of the Velvet Revolution, when he was invited to speak to the joint session of the US Congress in 1990. He said, “The only genuine backbone to all our actions, if they are to be moral, is responsibility. Responsibility to something higher than my family, my country, my self, my success.”
It is that sense of responsibility to something higher that will surely force governments, businesses and individuals to wake up to the challenges of climate change that His Royal Highness has highlighted today.
Sir, your life’s work has been to rediscover and celebrate harmony both in the natural world and in human society. Indeed, in your remarkable book, entitled Harmony, you urge us to appreciate nature as a profoundly beautiful world of complexity. Under your leadership, your charities are striving to do their part, by working together, collaborating, and so ensuring that the whole is far greater than the sum of the parts.
As members of BITC and with the help of Stephen Howard and his team, we are proud to play even a small part in your extraordinary mission to serve the country.
And so, my final thanks go to all of you for showing your commitment to BITC and its agenda and work. Without you we are nothing but words, but with you we change the fortunes of individuals, families, communities and this country.