Changing fashion or fashioning change?

by Luc Vandevelde, Chairman, Marks & Spencer

In every part of our business, we have an end result in mind and plan our strategy to achieve it. So, thinking about corporate social responsibility, how do we therefore conduct ourselves in the social arena to make a real difference in the world?

Change has to come from within. To get results, we need to create the conditions in which people can make their own decisions and be responsible for their actions. That applies both outside the company as we try to be a force for good in society – and inside the company as we motivate people to think and act in a socially responsible manner.

For this to happen, I believe companies must internalise the concept of CSR.

If there’s a CSR ethos at the core, your policies and practices will develop organically. They’ll flow from your basic values and the outcome will be good corporate behaviour.

That’s why legislating for CSR will always be difficult. You can’t impose it from the outside. CSR has to come from within as companies commit themselves to certain values and principles.

At Marks & Spencer, we certainly don’t claim to be leaders in every aspect of CSR – though I think we are in some. Nevertheless, we want to try to take a lead in this concept of internalising CSR and letting it work from the centre outwards.

First, we’ve set the example from the top. I myself chair the CSR committee consisting of three executive directors and two non-executives. One level down we have a CSR Forum whose job is to turn the committee’s vision into action.

Secondly, we’ve gone to great lengths to understand our stakeholders’ views and to shape our CSR policies and practices by what they tell us. Like many businesses, we have a range of mechanisms for listening and learning – everything from business involvement groups for employees, to monitoring the satisfaction of investors and suppliers.

Thirdly, as we try to place CSR at the core of the company, we’re allowing our business units to set their own CSR agenda. We, at the centre, establish the values and the framework. Our business units then work them out in practice. In due course, every business will have its own CSR strategy in support of our corporate objectives.

This exercise has focused our attention on three main areas where we need to concentrate our CSR efforts:

First – our products and services.

This is all about assuring our customers that Marks & Spencer produces high quality products and services with care and responsibility.

In trying to take the lead in this area, we have a natural advantage in that Marks & Spencer controls its supply chain one hundred per cent.

Let’s look at some of the ways in which our values have influenced the products we sell.

  • In 1997 we became the first major clothing retailer to adopt an Environmental Code of Practice covering all the chemicals used in the dyeing, printing and finishing of our fabrics – so banning potentially harmful chemicals years ahead of legislation.
  • Since September 2002, all the eggs that we sell or use in our products have been free range. So 700,000 birds are now living in free range conditions and customers get a better product.
  • Following the clear wishes of our customers, we now use non-GM ingredients in all our foods.
  • Last month we became the UK’s largest user of organic beauty ingredients when we launched our organic extracts beauty range … all made from at least 70% organic ingredients.

As our products embrace these ethical and environmental qualities and the brand wins greater trust from customers, we find we do better commercially.

The second of our big CSR themes is people – those who work directly for us, and those involved in our supply chain.

One feature of our recovery was creating an environment that allows people to be at their best and to take responsibility for their own progress. We believe this adult-to-adult relationship between the company and its employees makes Marks & Spencer a better place to work and produces superior results.

In the same way, we’re looking to engage our suppliers in building a responsible business.

There’s a good example in Morocco, where one of our suppliers is working with the government to provide literacy training for its workforce. Given that only 45% of Moroccan women can read and write, that’s a vital service. The approach is not to provide the training directly, but to set up the environment that enables local people to do the job. That’s very much the Marks & Spencer philosophy and one we try to encourage in our suppliers.

The benefits are enormous. As well as helping Moroccan society, a literate workforce is able to produce better goods more efficiently. This increases sales and feeds back into greater employment opportunities for Moroccan workers.

Thirdly, a look at what we’re doing in the community.

Under the Ready for Work programme, we’re offering two-week placements in our stores to 600 homeless people to help them break the cycle of no home, no job, no home.

It’s now been going for a year and we’ve so far offered placements to around 300 people. Of the 200 who’ve either finished the programme or are currently being trained, about 25% have been offered permanent employment at Marks & Spencer or elsewhere.

Ready for Work has further advantages for our own staff. Each participant has a Marks & Spencer buddy whose job is to make them feel part of the team. Our buddies have told us that Ready for Work is a real help in developing their personal skills.

Furthermore, nine out of ten of our customers say they support our work with the homeless in this way.

Businesses are like people – they behave according to their personality. That’s why it’s not enough just to tick the CSR boxes and say we’ve complied. To be really effective, CSR must be part of the corporate DNA and integral to everything we do. It has to be internalised.

At the same time, we’re also trying to externalise our CSR.

We’re now communicating much more vigorously. We’re proud of what we’re doing and we want people to know it. Which in turn is good for business – which in turn allows us to do more as a force for good.

That said, we’re still learning. Progress is sometimes painful and we’re bound to make mistakes. Nevertheless, we’re absolutely committed to conducting our business in a way that achieves solid results – both commercially and socially.

“The main prop of our organisation is the goodwill of our public.” Those are not my words but those of a former Marks & Spencer Chairman, Lord Sieff, as long ago as 1933. Then as now, business is nothing without society’s confidence.

Companies must win the trust of their stakeholders by effecting real and permanent change. That’s the only route to a long-term, sustainable and profitable business.

This is an edited version of a keynote speech given by Luc Vandevelde, chairman of Marks and Spencers, at Business in the Community’s Annual Conference on 10 July 2003

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