M&S launches innovation challenges on sustainable agriculture and consumer behaviours

Image: M&S

The retailer’s ‘Ignite’ team, which oversees its open innovation efforts, announced the challenge on Tuesday (7 June), confirming two workstreams on sustainable agriculture and on consumer attitudes towards environmental sustainability respectively. In both categories, start-ups and scale-ups are invited to apply.

On the sustainable agriculture side, M&S is seeking tech-based solutions which make processes more efficient across the upstream value chain. Solutions should deliver co-benefits across the fields of energy efficiency, material efficiency, waste reduction, emissions reduction, animal welfare and biodiversity support.

M&S’s website for this challenge notes that the firm is particularly keen to support innovations that could improve the shelf life of produce; could reduce produce imports by enabling vertical farming in the UK; and/or could make crops more resistant to pests and diseases. M&S notably trialled in-store vertical farming in 2019.

The second challenge area, changing consumer behaviours, is intending to help shoppers to understand the environmental impact of their purchasing choices and to select the lower-impact options.

Again, tech-based solutions are being sought in terms of communications. Applicants are being encouraged from fields such as environmental labelling and supply chain data visualisation, which would be accessible to consumers via smartphone. M&S already offers desktop-optimised digital mapping tools for supply chains including viscose, wool, seafood, beef and dairy.

Also covered by this challenge are innovations requiring changes in business models and consumer behaviour. M&S has stated that it will consider applications covering things like refillable products and clothing take-back – both services that it has been trialling and scaling in stores in recent years, with partners including Oxfam and Beauty Kitchen.

Whether applicants opt for labelling or business model changes, M&S has stated that it wishes to “make it fun for customers to change their habits”, though gamification, nudge approaches and/or providing personal rewards.

Plan A for innovation

The winning application in each of the two challenges will receive support from M&S and its investment firm partner True to develop a proof of concept and trial within M&S’s supply chain and/or operations. There will then be scope for a wider rollout. One winner will be chosen for each challenge.

edie has approached M&S for information on the level of financing being allocated to the challenges, and for the date by which winners are expected to be confirmed.

While M&S has built contacts with more than one million start-ups and scale-ups through its Ignite team, this week marks the first time that it has opened a challenge directly themed on environmental sustainability. The retailer notably refreshed its flagship ‘Plan A’ sustainability strategy in 2021, with a key change being a new commitment to reach a net-zero value chain by 2040.

M&S’s head of Ignite, Stuart Ramage, said the new challenges form part of efforts to “continue to drive a culture of innovation across M&S” as it works towards updated ‘Plan A’ goals.

With the firm’s supply chain accounting for 97% of its emissions, it’s clear to see how the agriculture challenge ties in to commitments on climate. The consumer engagement challenge may well help to drive progress towards commitments on resources. Plan A includes pledges to ensure all food packaging is recyclable by the end of 2022; to reduce the volume of plastic food packaging used annually by 30% by 2027; to halve food waste by 2030 and to ‘enhance’ clothing take-back.

It is not simply for environmental reasons that M&S has refreshed its sustainability strategy and begun accelerating innovation efforts. The retailer has been striving to increase sales and profits after a disappointing slump at the end of the 2010s. Financial filings for the year to 2 April 2022 revealed that sales were up 18.6% year-on-year. Food, clothing and homeware sales were all up on pre-pandemic levels.

Innovation accelerator trend

Recent months have seen a flurry of sustainability-related innovation schemes being announced or expanded in the private sector.

April saw Amazon announcing the 12 early-stage stage startups that will be joining its inaugural Launchpad Sustainability Accelerator, after receiving 1,200 applications. The online commerce giant is operating the accelerator in partnership with the EU’s climate innovation scheme, EIT Climate-KIC, as it aims to deliver on its pledge to invest $2bn in sustainable innovations this decade.

Also in April, Virgin Startup announced the reopening of its Collective Impact programme in partnership with Crowdcube and Capital Pilot.

In May, Tesco and WWF launched ‘Innovation Connections’ – a new programme enabling cleantech start-ups to trial their technologies and processes at the retailer’s major produce, meat, fish and dairy suppliers.

And, also in the British retail space, John Lewis Partnership confirmed in May the projects that will receive a share of its £1m circular economy fund. The money has been raised by charges for carrier bags and allocation of financing is jointly overseen by the Partnership and environmental charity Hubbub.

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