Retailers need to make big changes and take tangible and measurable action now to make their businesses sustainable, according to a panel speaking at the World Retail Congress in Barcelona.

They warned that it will require a great deal of work, but the issues of sustainability and ethics are reaching a tipping point in the minds of consumers.

United Nations Global Compact executive director Georg Kell said: “Taking a CEO leadership stance is the way forward, but you need to follow through.”

He added that you need to be able to regularly disclose information about the progress you are making.

Kingfisher chief executive Ian Cheshire agreed. He said: “Unless you are doing it for real don’t bother at all. You can do some serious brand damage if you try to do something that isn’t very well thought through. You have to make your commitments tangible and able to disclose.”

Cheshire warned that the sustainability agenda is not going to go away. He said: “It’s a big and complicated issue, but it is in consumers heads in a way it wasn’t five years ago. And they want our help as retailers. We don’t have an option of parking it in the corner.”

Kell said that some good efforts had been started, but there was an awful lot of fragmentation and called for business to work together. He also warned that cost efficiency pressures and short-term thinking were cancelling out many of the work that has been done.

Kell said: “There is a real danger that the sustainability movement itself is not sustainable. Creating an ethical global marketplace is not something we can take for granted – it requires effort.”

Greenpeace international executive director Dr Gerd Leipold said that, despite all the talk of recent years, we are still moving further away from the goal of sustainable business and sustainable living.

He said: “In spite of all the talk – most people say they are committed to sustainability – the reality is that we are still getting away from it at a frightening rate.”

However, he said retailers were well-placed to make a difference. “They are in touch with customers and also have relationships with suppliers,” he said.

Hasbro chairman Alan Hassenfeld said that his company will no longer be judged on hot products, but on CSR issues such as human rights, environment and morality and efforts.

He added that his it was the responsibility of business leaders and “not something we can delegate.” He added: “If you are paying lip service and nothing more people will know you won’t mean it.”

Hassenfeld explained that, in the toy industry, they have come together to tackle human rights issues and develop a code together. He said that progress accelerated when retailers joined the process. He urged industry leaders to come together and develop global standards. “My great fear is that if we don’t come together then individual governments will legislate and believe me you don’t want governments to legislate,” he said.

Cheshire said that “different countries are in radically different places” in terms of the sustainability agenda. At Kingfisher, they have had start with the basics in countries such as China and France, but markets such as the UK and Germany are much further ahead.

The UK ethical market has doubled in the past five years. Cheshire said this represented a “myriad of product opportunities”. He added: “I’m very sure we’ve delivered far more bottom line gain out of this than costs.”