'Ahead of the curve': Why M&S wants to collaborate to innovate on sustainable packaging

EXCLUSIVE: Marks & Spencer (M&S) wants to be 'ahead of the curve' when it comes to applying circular economy principles to plastic packaging and therefore developing more sustainable, collaborative supply chains within the retail industry.

Through Plan A, M&S has phased out hard-to-recycle PVC and polystyrene from its products and packaging, and ships 98% of its products from in reusable packaging crates

Through Plan A, M&S has phased out hard-to-recycle PVC and polystyrene from its products and packaging, and ships 98% of its products from in reusable packaging crates

M&S's primary food packaging innovation lead Kevin Vyse believes that recycling-based packaging principles are being applied and unified across the globe by cross-sector platforms such as the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s Circular Economy 100 (CE100), a collaborative initiative of which the retailer is an active member. 

Speaking to edie ahead of his appearance at the Resource Revolution Conference in July (scroll down for details), Vyse said that the Ellen MacArthur Foundation - an organisation he describes as “very prominent in the communication of change” - has the potential to work as a key enabler for systemic change to overcome potential stalemates in today’s plastics economy.

“I think the most important thing within the CE100 is what we do with plastic packaging going forward,” Vyse said. “Plastic is a major contributor to the packaging environment and therefore I think there’s some big challenges there for us all as an industry to grasp hold of and we want to be ahead of the curve as much as we can on delivering some of that.

"Being part of CE100 is very much us working with them to make sure we’re getting the latest thinking and the latest vision about where polymers could go.”

Business-driven innovation

The sustainable packaging model approach being taken by M&S is very much a central tenet of its Plan A sustainability programme, aimed at propelling the company to become the most sustainable major retailer in the world.

Operating more than 900 stores in the UK, M&S has the scale and distribution infrastructure to manage its own reusable packaging operation from production to shelf. The retailer has already completely phased out hard-to-recycle PVC and polystyrene from its products and packaging, and currently ships 98% of its products from supplier to store in reusable packaging crates.

Vyse is hopeful that M&S’ achievements will lead to other major companies realising the numerous benefits of taking a business-driven innovation approach to minimising packaging waste.

“I think the industry will change very quickly," he added. "They’re waiting for consumers to change their behaviour and the particular piece of behaviour that needs changing is to be very much more supportive of the recycling economy, because the more material we get back on the market the more you can invest in the long-term. 

“At the moment, apart from the countries like Denmark and Germany who have been doing it for 45 years, it’s difficult to put your hand on your heart and say this will be there next year because of the cost and mechanics of doing it.

"By unifying a recycling principle across the European Union, you could very well see a better supply chain for those recycled materials, and that is what the Ellen MacArthur Foundation are working towards.”

Sustainable supply chain

M&S’ successful implementation of its own sustainable packaging operations can be partially contributed to an extensive collaboration with its supply chain - an ethos that recently saw the retailer make an industry-leading commitment to support and improve the environmental sustainability of the fishing sector.

Vyse insists that M&S will only work with companies who produce packaging "with a very sustainable attitude” in line with its own philosophy, which places paramount over the health and safety of its materials.

“What we’re trying to do is to work with our packaging suppliers so that they start to understand the detail we go into when we produce our food product," Vyse concluded. "And therefore they should put the same amount of detail into producing the packaging for it.

“In that case, we are looking at more collaborative type projects where there may be several companies buying the same packaging from several sources. It’s about trying to rationalise that and make the science more open-sourced, so that we’re actually creating packaging we know is on message but also doing the right thing across a wider group of suppliers.”

Kevin Vyse at the edie Resource Resource Conference

Kevin Vyse is speaking at the edie Resource Revolution Conference to discuss “tackling the plastic packaging conundrum”.

Taking place on the July 5, the edie Resource Revolution Conference provides resource management, sustainability, waste, product, supply chain and design professionals with tools they need to rethink their approach to resource use and waste outputs, drive organisational efficiencies, behaviour change and profitability, and effect a revolution in their company’s sustainability credentials.

You can view the agenda of the conference here at register to attend here.

George Ogleby


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