Alannah Weston (1991)
Chairman of Selfridges Group and sustainability advocate
Weston’s mission as Chairman of Selfridges Group, a position held since 2019, is to empower talented people to deliver extraordinary customer experience within human and planetary boundaries. Selfridges Group is a collection of international department stores that exist to imagine and create a sustainable future for their people and customers. With 25 stores worldwide across five brands, Selfridges Group includes Arnotts and Brown Thomas in Ireland, De Bijenkorf in the Netherlands, Holt Renfrew in Canada, and Selfridges in the UK.
Alannah became Creative Director of Selfridges in 2003 when her father W Galen Weston bought the business and played a key role in its transformation into a leading luxury department store with four stores in the UK and a digital platform delivering to 130 countries. She is credited with reinvigorating the brand through a focus on creativity and sustainability. During her tenure, the department store was voted World’s Best Department Store four times (GDSS 2010, 2012, 2014, 2018). Alannah spearheaded Selfridges’ sustainability strategy with the launch of Project Ocean in 2011, a complete store takeover aimed at raising awareness of the issue of overfishing and ocean pollution.
Passionate about people and planet, Alannah has brought a multi-stakeholder approach to her chairmanship, working with the leadership team to embed sustainability and diversity in their business plans. Very much a futurist, Alannah played a pivotal role in the conception of Project Earth in 2020, marking a new chapter in Selfridges’ history - the start of a challenging yet vital journey to change the way we shop. The initiative builds on the industry-leading steps Selfridges has taken over the last 10 years to place sustainability at the heart of the Company’s commitment to Science-Based Targets and to achieve net-zero carbon by 2040, ten years ahead of the Paris agreement.
Alannah believes that sustainability will be the next big disruptor of her industry, and in 2020 Alannah began to record her own podcast, How to Lead a Sustainable Business, interviewing thought leaders and pioneers who are actively innovating and transforming the way they do business for the sake of people and planet.
Thinking of the first day you walked through the Merton Lodge arch, what was your first impression?
It was exactly as I thought it should be – I had very romantic notions of what Oxford would be like, and it certainly didn’t disappoint. Even in those days it seemed steeped in the past – the Porter’s Lodge with the pigeonholes, the dining tables and benches, the eccentric tutors… but that gave it a hallowed feeling. As a Canadian, I was seeking out something that felt foreign to me, and yet comforting and home.
Do you have a particular memory that stands out from your time at Merton?
There are many – being the only person with a computer and a ‘brick’ phone and more importantly, a mini-fridge in the whole College, they used to call my room ‘Silicon Valley’. I remember once my printer broke and I asked John Carey if I could read my essay off the laptop and he looked quite alarmed and said that someone else could read their essay that day.
John Carey taught me to write. I remember him critiquing someone’s essay for being tentative and telling us, "Never say, ‘could be seen to be’ – it’s is, is, is." It wasn’t much fun for other student in that tutorial but I’ve never forgotten it. Be clear, be sure and don’t be apologetic about what you think. It was a great lesson for me as a female student.
The Time Ceremony was something wonderfully bizarre – do you still walk backwards around the quad in sub fusc when the clocks go back?
And I also remember trying to start an Environment Club and only two Fresher boys came along. The College wasn’t known for its activism. Though we did manage to boycott Nestlé coffee in the JCR. I’m hoping students today are more engaged with politics than we were. Our generation has lost a lot of time.
Tell us something about yourself that we would not know.
I spent a month during university living in a tent on a beach in Madagascar. Henry Weldon (fellow Mertonian) had organised a group of divers to help the Malagash researchers on a WWF project to map a coral reef. I didn’t have SCUBA qualifications, but I could speak a little French, so my job was translating what they’d seen for the scientists – though my fishy vocabulary was quite limited, I could stretch to ‘poisson d’ange’.
What tips would you give your younger self to prepare for the career you have achieved?
Don’t be afraid to fail and make mistakes. Spend as much time on the shop floor as you do with your nose in a book. My education was fundamental to my confidence as a female in business and to my career because it taught me academic rigour in developing a clear argument and articulating the evidence to support it. That’s what business strategy is about. The rest is all about people. Spending time at Oxford opened up the possibility of having fun with smart people. That’s what drives me to this day.
Describe Merton in three words.
History. Intellect. Excellence.