Can Wales be a sustainable development pioneer?
When Wales became the first part of the UK to introduce in October 2011 there was a backlash from some in the business world, who instead pushed for a voluntary approach. Yet fewer than two years on, Northern Ireland has followed suit, Scotland is planning a similar policy and pressure is growing on England to catch up.
The figures speak for themselves – a in Wales, while in England there was actually a rise of 4%. The retail world hasn't ended as a result. Shoppers and retailers adapt and the environment benefits.
The carrier bag charge was a bold decision by the previous Welsh government to take a lead in the UK. It's one example of how , since the beginning of devolution, has developed a culture of sustainable development, reflecting the duty placed on its government when the Welsh Assembly began.
Sustainable development is not a fantasy or an unattainable aspiration. It can be a practical guide to the daily business of government, corporations and wider society.
The Welsh duty on sustainable development has been a driving force for Wales' success in a wide variety of areas, from leading the UK on waste recycling to encouraging public bodies to buy local organic food.
This is all welcome news to those of us who believe that acting for the long term and being ready to take a strong lead are vital to achieving prosperity – in government, as in business.
I've been watching with interest the latest developments in Wales on this agenda, including the potentially most exciting and ambitious to date – a (recently given the working title of the Future Generations Bill), designed to put sustainable development at the heart of all decisions in government and the public sector.
If Welsh government gets this law right, it could help turn around the country's economy and give Wales a first mover advantage in preparing for a low-carbon, resource-efficient future, as well as tackling the poverty that blights many areas.
A strong bill will also send a powerful message to the business world that Wales is serious about this agenda. What could be more attractive to forward-thinking companies than a part of the UK where government is fully committed to sustainability in everything it does?
However, it would be a mistake to think that all is rosy in Wales. The other side to this story is a Welsh government that appears to be wavering when it comes to actually delivering what it has promised. Despite claims that it wants to lead with groundbreaking legislation, the proposals so far have been much too weak to deliver real change in key issues such as public procurement.
Recently, I gave my support to a growing campaign for a strong sustainability law in Wales. Over 20 organisations – including big names such as Oxfam, WWF-UK, Friends of the Earth, RSPB and the WI – have now published their own, .
I very much hope that the Welsh government will adopt this alternative approach. For this bill to make a difference, it needs to have teeth. It has to properly define what sustainable development means and set out a strong duty on Welsh public services to achieve it – both of these are things that are currently missing from Welsh ministers' proposals.
The bill must enable corporations and industry to play their part too – and create the right conditions for businesses to succeed in a sustainable way.
Making Wales a place where the government and public sector have a strong duty and commitment to sustainable development, with a consistent approach across all policy areas, is an attractive prospect. If government supported companies in their transition, in a consistent way, it would put the country at a competitive advantage in the growing green economy, which already employs more people than the motor trade or financial services in Wales. It would also help all businesses in Wales be better prepared for a future of intense global competition for increasingly scarce resources.
All this can not only help businesses in Wales thrive economically, but contribute to the wellbeing of people in Wales both today and in the future, through putting a true value on the environment and ecosystem services and addressing societal issues such as the poverty that still exists in some communities.
Wales has a lot going for it. It has a government with social justice embedded in sustainable development, with both of these firmly on the political agenda. The Welsh public consistently shows it cares deeply for the environment and the country has a solid base upon which to build a thriving green economy. Its small size makes it easy to bring key people together to get things done.
I'm hopeful that if the Welsh government is willing to take stock, listen and deliver a strong Future Generations Bill, then Wales' carrier bag charge – and its wider influence – could be just the start for a small country taking a lead in creating an attractive environment for sustainable business.
Sir Stuart Rose is the former chief executive of Marks & Spencer, where he spearheaded with the ultimate goal of becoming the world's most sustainable major retailer. He is now independent non-executive director of Ocado and a member of WWF-UK's .
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