Why shoppers are the real challenge for M&S’ sustainability ambitions

M&S’s sustainability director, Mike Barry, explains why the retailer needs to get its customers thinking green before it can become a truly sustainable business

Nine years and three chief executives since Marks & Spencer first launched its Plan A initiative on eco and ethical targets, the UK retailer is now something of an elder statesman on sustainability reporting.

Yet it continues to lead the pack thanks to its efforts to drive down food waste, energy use and water use. According to its latest sustainability report, released last week, M&S has produced zero net carbon emissions for four consecutive years, sources all electricity for its UK and Ireland stores from renewable energy and sends none of its operational waste from stores, warehouses and offices to landfill. But with much of the lower hanging fruit now plucked, the challenge is how to climb higher.

So what started as a stakeholder-led initiative in 2007 to boost the company’s social and environmental credentials is now increasingly involving M&S customers, too, according to the retailer’s director of sustainable business, Mike Barry.

“To become a truly sustainable business we need to take our 32 million customers and 83,000 colleagues with us on the journey. It can’t be something that is just done behind the scenes,” he tells BusinessGreen. “They want big business to do the heavy lifting, but they want to get involved in areas where M&S can make a difference in their own lives, so things like charity work, working in the local community and connecting people with volunteering.”

This approach – geared towards first educating and then building confidence in sustainability – has seen the launch of the M&S ‘Spark Something Good’ campaign in July 2015 to boost customer and staff activities in the community, as well as enabling customers to select a charity to donate to each time they use their pre-paid Sparks Card for purchases. Meanwhile a new food redistribution social network initiative – neighbourly.com – has also helped the firm cut its own food waste by nine per cent since 2013/14, while its Joanna Lumley-backed ‘Shwopping’ scheme saw customers donate 2.7 million garments last year.

Indeed, in the latest sustainability report M&S chief executive Steve Rowe hints these sorts of initiatives could well be the start of a burgeoning trend, stating his plan to put “customers at the heart of our business”.

Still, Barry accepts that on the whole, when it comes to sustainability, business should do most of the legwork. “What M&S is saying is: ‘We’ll do 90 per cent of the work – factories, fridges, palm oil – we’ll get on with that. But the remaining 10 per cent we’ll make easier for you to join us in the journey. We trust you to do the right thing and to help us understand this complex issue and deliver it with us’,” he explains.

Part of this journey also involves building in environmental standards across 100 per cent of the M&S portfolio, and so far nearly three quarters of the retailer’s products now have an eco or ethical quality.

Consumer goods giant Unilever recently revealed its sustainability brands were now some of its biggest sellers, with more customers looking for high environmental standards in their purchases. Yet perhaps unlike many other retailers and brands, M&S doesn’t stick a big ‘eco’ label on any of its products. According to Barry, M&S customers are less interested in sustainability as a selling point on its own, but simply expect this as part and parcel of all M&S products. His job is therefore to ensure M&S keeps up with its customers’ ever-broadening concept of ‘quality’.

“Millions of our customers are telling us that quality matters, and our definition of quality is getting broader – it is including environmental, social and ethical considerations as part of that,” explains Barry. “So there will always be part of me which is cautious about trying to create a niche section in our stores which says ‘that is the ethical corner, madam, and over there is everything else’. I want every single product to have a social and environmental story to tell as part of our quality proposition for our customers.”

One of the unique advantages M&S has over some of its rivals in this regard is that it sells very little in the way of externally-branded products – arguably giving the retailer greater control over its supply chain and enforcing sustainable practices. But again, this also brings with it greater expectations from M&S customers, Barry argues.

“We accept that challenge from our customers, that’s one of the reasons to shop with us,” he says. “Absolutely we’ve got some in-built business model advantages in terms of the scale of our private level business and knowing where our products are coming from. We know who they are and where our products are coming from in a way that perhaps other retailers would struggle with.”

This can also further push M&S towards closing the loop on waste through better product design – a major focus of EU’s Circular Economy package of legislation currently under discussion in Brussels. As a result, Barry says he is able to work with some of the best food, homeware and clothing product designers in the world on the wide M&S portfolio.

“We’ve got a very strong in-house innovation design capacity which other retailers perhaps don’t have, because we have to develop, design and produce our new products,” he says. “Those in-built business model advantages – private label, innovation capacity, knowing where our products are coming from – those are certainly ones that we will develop in the future.”

Barry remains tight-lipped on setting future targets beyond those currently locked into Plan A for 2020, despite M&S having now achieved 57 of the 103 commitments and being on-track to hit a further 40 on deadline. The retailer is only behind on the remaining six commitments, but Barry says he is “not overly concerned” about meeting these either. So will M&S soon be updating Plan A with new targets?

“Inevitably there will be Plan A updates in the not too distant future,” he says. “There’s a sweet spot that emerges – and I don’t quite know when that is yet – when change becomes sensible. When you’ve learned enough and done enough in the past, then you can start reaching out to the next five or 10 years.”

Beyond that, Barry says while a “sexy new” low-carbon model may be on the long-term horizon, for now the company is focused on completing Plan A successfully. “We can see some very exciting new opportunities for M&S in new marketplaces in the future, but ‘A’ they are confidential and ‘B’ you’ve got to walk before you can run,” he says. “You’ll be flat on your face if you sit there dreaming about some sexy new model and you don’t deliver change today.”

In the meantime it seems the biggest challenge – and indeed main aim – for the firm will continue to be getting customers more deeply involved with Plan A and its goals going forward.

Indeed, giving his personal perspective in the latest M&S Plan A progress report, Forum for the Future founding director Jonathon Porrit suggested improving customer involvement “proved to be as elusive an objective in 2015 as it has been in preceding years” for M&S.

“This is clearly going to be a top priority for 2016,” said Porrit, who also co-chairs M&S’s external Sustainable Retail Advisory Board alongside the likes of CEO Steve Rowe and Joanna Lumley.

With Rowe only two months into his role as CEO, how exactly M&S plans to further engage customers on sustainability remains to be seen, but Barry is ambitious: “We’ve got to make sure that every time customers touch the M&S business, their life is better for it.”

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