Retail has a unique role in society and can use its strengths to address some of our most important challenges, believes The Very Group chief finance and transformation officer Ben Fletcher

Successful, sustainable companies have long understood they are critical actors in society. Business needs a strong society to thrive.

In turn, the ingenuity, risk appetite and problem-solving skills of business help progress society by meeting needs, improving experiences, and creating new skills and opportunities.

The relationship is symbiotic – a connection to people, places and communities through the opportunity of solving societal problems. This is purposeful leadership. In an environment of rising inflation and constrained consumer demand, the focus on the immediate inevitably risks crowding out longer-term perspective on our role in society.

However, the need is even greater when the economic conditions are hardest. We’re experiencing a cost-of-living shock at the same time as profound technological disruption, which is changing forever the way we consume, work and communicate.

No industry is better placed to play a role in improving societal outcomes than retail. We’re present in every community, employ more people than any sector in the UK, and provide a route into employment for those who may lack educational qualifications or who may need flexibility to meet their family’s needs.

“No industry is better placed to play a role in improving societal outcomes than retail”

Each of us can identify an issue that is relevant to our customers and who we are as a business, and an impact we can have. With that clarity there are five assets retailers can leverage to achieve the desired impact:

  • Our core specialisms – Every retailer is uniquely good as something – food, clothing, optometry, pharmacy – and can apply our unique capabilities to address societal challenges. Applying core competency to solving a societal issue lends immediate credibility.
  • Our colleagues – They often have a real impact through volunteering. I have seen that work well. But we can also think of our colleagues in another way – as parents, grandparents and carers. Given retail is the UK’s largest employer, our reach into families with need is significant.
  • Our communities – All retailers are present in the community and have a place they call home. For Very it is the wonderful city of Liverpool. We can have an impact on our immediate surroundings where we’re able to forge local partnerships with other organisations. In many places – such as Liverpool – we have the chance to partner with active metro mayors.
  • Our reach – Our presence in the community provides a chance to educate, inform and help those in need. A great example of this is McDonald’s, which since 2013 has distributed 61 million books with Happy Meals. An incredible point of access for families who benefit.
  • Our partners – We can work with partners and utilise each other’s complementary strengths, regardless of sector, whether that be supply chain, marketing or legal. Bring these partners into the issue you care about and be upfront about the impact you want to have.

Since 2019, Very has supported child literacy charity Coram Beanstalk, helping children in our communities and across the UK gain their reading confidence. Since last year we have been part of creating a new partnership – the Literacy Business Council, including several retailers, professional services firms and the Football Association – to address the issue of the 200,000 children who start primary school without the skills to read.

As Very’s CFO, I see purposeful business that solves some of society’s most challenging issues is not an alternative to shareholder value but the most sustainable way of creating it.

This is why the Anthropy initiative is so exciting. It recognises the central role of business in addressing key societal challenges and together with charities and the third sector takes a long-term view of how to create a stronger, more prosperous country.

I was fortunate to attend the inaugural event in Cornwall last year alongside more than 1,000 fellow leaders. With many continuing to experience hardship and inequality, we’re meeting again this November.

Retail deserves to be well represented – no industry will make a bigger difference. I hope to see you there.

Retail Week is partnering Anthropy, which is taking place at the Eden Project from November 1-3. Retail Week is a media partner. To find out more about Anthropy, click here. When purchasing tickets, readers can use the discount code RTWK23150.