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The ESG Review: UK ESG pioneer Selfridges on staying the course

ESG has had a rough ride over the past year or so. Continued criticism over the value it truly provides - to investors, to shareholders, to employees and to the wider world - has seen both companies reaffirm their commitments and others reassess their priorities.

In that climate, retaining focus on communicating ESG strategy can also become more complicated: corporate communication has long had its own evaluation challenges, and adding ESG to the mix hardly makes things easier.

In a new series of occasional articles, we’ll look to talk to corporate affairs and communications directors about how their organisations are approaching communication around ESG topics, and how priorities and challenges may be shifting in turbulent economic and geopolitical times.

No two businesses are the same, and so no two ESG strategies will be either.

That’s certainly the case with Selfridges, the high-end retailer that was both relatively early to set out a sustainability strategy, and has been innovative from the off.

As executive communications director Catriona Woolner-Winders points out, as a retailer Selfridges is an intermediary - between customers on one side and luxury brands on the other - in delivering on its ESG goals, so plays a role in enabling and encouraging action from all.

But that position of being “somewhat in the middle” has also become an important card to play in evaluating the success of both ESG programmes and communications.

Selfridges’ approach to assessing returns on ESG investment has been to focus on three things, Firstly, risk: as EU and UK regulation has increased, so have the compliance requirements and the associated reputation considerations.

Secondly, direct consumer engagement on applicable topics, how that then drives business and how it alters their choices. And thirdly, share of voice on those topics in all types of media - not just with direct competitors, but across all luxury categories.

Those three vectors allow the business to understand how it is performing on ESG initiatives, and in parallel how communication in those areas is supporting that.

As Catriona put it: “It makes sure we don’t lose our focus.”

The company, owned by two private investment groups, has a long-held vision of reinventing retail, with sustainability and therefore a broad ESG programme being central. That means it was relatively early in its sector in communicating sustainability and initiatives and change, something that it has continued for the best part of 20 years with campaigns, promotions and special projects. The business’s leadership, both current and previous, has championed that too.

“As a retailer, we’re very much a platform for change. We have an important position, and often have to make bold decisions, such as when we banned fur back in 2005. A big part of our job is to bring sustainability to life for our customers, to drive demand, and that tends to create a communication cycle that can last for up to nine months for each initiative,” she said.


This deep-rooted approach to increasing sustainability and being able to evaluate the things that matter most to the business has enabled Selfridges to stay the course, even during choppy ESG waters when environmental pledges in particular are under greater consumer scrutiny.

The business has now set an additional goal of making 45 per cent of its transactions will come from circular products and services by 2030, which will involve a huge shift in consumer behaviour.

“Above all, we’ve been able to keep focused by listening hard to customers, to our stakeholders and to our team members. We have reams of data, and we use it continually to show the progress we’re making,” added Catriona.

The ESG News Review is written by Steve Earl, a Partner at BOLDT.

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