Remembering a sustainability pioneer: Tom McLaughlin

by | Jun 26, 2019 | Blog

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The recent passing of Tom Mclaughlin, who first led the Woolworths Good Business  Journey has been a shock to all who came to know his warmth and wisdom.

I first met Tom when we were fellow board members of the Fairest Cape Association, some 25 years ago. He was then packaging manager of Woolworths and asked me to write articles for their Green Balance internal staff newsletter. Tom wanted to help staff understand the broader environmental issues that were arising as well as those relevant to retailing.

I did this for a year or so, then suggested to Tom that we organise a workshop at Woolies head office and called it  ‘Towards Sustainable Retailing’. The plan was to create a space for those in the company who had strong green leanings to get together and  form a voluntary environmental committee. Which was what happened.

From then on, Tom convened regular meetings of the committee and we brought in speakers on a range of topics including battery hens and bovine flu, as well as packaging and recycling.

At around that time, Tom, Peter Willis, myself and others helped to found  the South African  branch of The Natural Step (TNS), an international sustainability training programme that was well suited to engage with business and corporates.

As environmental awareness was growing in the marketplace and amongst Woolworths staff, Peter was brought in to help train management in sustainability principles. Peter excelled in this, later going on to head the Cambridge Programme for Sustainability Leadership in SA.    At Woolworths, sustainability consciousness and practice started gaining firm ground.

Upper management began to see that there was positive alignment between sustainability and the Woolworths corporate objectives. The voluntary committee was replaced by a formal Sustainability Forum. Simon Susman, then chairman and CEO of the company gave it strong backing as well.

The foundation had been laid for the Woolworths Good Business Journey which Tom pioneered and was later handed over to Justin Smith – and now Feroz Koor and others – who continue the good work that Tom was instrumental in starting.

Since those early days, Woolworths has gone on to become one of the South Africa’s leading models of business sustainability, winning many top international awards for its achievements and setting the bar for companies here and worldwide.

Humble though he was, Tom’s contribution is not to be underestimated. His gentle approach opened many doors and hearts to the importance of sustainability in business.   Yet it has been underscored by a resolute determination to keep to first principles of sustainability, showing how companies can be a force for environmental and social good while also thriving as a business.

– Hugh Tyrrell, director of GreenEdge Communication

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