Paradigm shift: How ‘unsatisfied customers’ are driving M&S’s sustainability progress

With Marks & Spencer (M&S) publishing the latest update to its Plan A sustainability strategy this week, the retailer’s director of sustainable business Mike Barry explains how mounting consumer pressures have helped to accelerate progress towards delivering sustainable products and packaging.

It’s been another huge week for global action and awareness of plastic pollution. World Environment Day (5 June) and World Oceans Day (8 June) both themed themselves on tackling the issue, while a swathe of companies – including IKEA, Waitrose, AB InBev, Pernod Ricard and Quorn Foods – all announced new initiatives to help eliminate single-use plastics from the supply chain.

It came as a surprise, then, to see that the official press release for M&S’s first progress report of its revamped Plan A sustainability programme did not mention plastics at all.

It was sustainable cotton sourcing which instead led Thursday’s announcement, with M&S reporting that 77% of the cotton sourced from its products are now being grown using more sustainable methods – a notable rise from 49% this time last year.

So followed edie’s annual phone conversation with Barry, who was eager to explain how and why M&S has shifted the focus of its efforts towards the sustainability credentials of its products, rather than operational efficiencies.

“People now expect us to manage energy and water in the shops and behind the scenes – it’s just good business practice,” Barry conceded. “But M&S sells products, and customers want to know the story behind those products, and the packaging that they are in. It’s a welcome interest from the marketplace and a welcome degree of competition to reach out to customers and give them what they want.

“These issues are becoming more and more central to the customers’ lives… plastics and cotton are great examples of this. The cotton story stands out particularly because of how quickly we got to scale with it.”

Plastics pressures

Indeed, M&S’s progress on sustainable cotton sourcing has been nothing short of remarkable. The retailer sources around 50,000 tonnes of cotton a year, the majority of which now comes through the Better Cotton Initiative, which sees cotton farmers benefit economically and socially from retail purchases. M&S is now on course to meet its 100% sourcing commitment next year.

Of course, this progress has not come at the expense of M&S’s work to tackle the issue of plastics waste – far from it in fact. As Barry notes, the recent wave of consumer pressure around plastics has equally driven new ambitions across the retail sector.

“There’s a growing concern among consumers as to how we live our lives in a throwaway society, and plastics is the posterchild for that,” Barry said. “There’s a latent sense of disquiet and it’s interesting to me, because it’s an unsatisfied customer need that must be resolved. We want to change how we use plastics, but we’re going to do it in a way that is right for society and the environment.”

M&S’s plastic target is now set for 2022, with the retailer aiming to ensure all plastic packaging that could end up with customers will be “widely recycled”. The company is also planning to develop one recyclable plastic polymer for use across all of its plastic packaging.

Barry revealed that he and his team had initially envisioned that the transition to single-polymer and widely recyclable plastics would take up to eight years, but this heightened consumer demand has driven the retailer to bring forward this target. This acceleration is being seen across the industry, which has itself created a sense of healthy competition. Iceland, for example, is now being reassessed in the eyes of consumers for its pledge to remove all plastics from own-brand packaging by 2023, alongside a similar phase-out of palm oil.

“I like what Iceland are doing,” Barry added. “They’ve thrown a brick in the pond and created some real ripples that others have to respond to.

“For packaging, [M&S is in] a good place in the ‘old paradigm’, but today we’re in a new gallop that we predicted when we launched the update last summer – but we didn’t fully predict how quickly this would come.”

Store closures

M&S’s own research into its 32 million customers has suggested that they are demanding quality products with ethics and sustainability built in. According to the Plan A update, 83% of M&S’s products now hold an ‘eco’ or ‘ethical’ quality “above the norm”, with the company striving to make this 100% within the next 18 months.

More broadly, the focus on adapting and tailoring products and services to meet changing consumer demands continues to have a transformative impact on the retail sector. The huge rise in e-commerce is itself an example of such a shift which is disrupting the high street – M&S has just announced it will close more than 100 stores by 2022, eliminating 25% of floor space currently devoted to clothing and homewares. The firm has more than 1,000 stores in the UK, and around a third of these sell clothing, homeware and food.

The closures serve to highlight the impact that this transition to more online shopping services is having, and Barry believes M&S will likely have more warehouses and less retail outlets in the future. He admitted that the shift to e-commerce would lead to tweaks in the Plan A strategy – notably a “different architecture” for fleet management. However, he reiterated that the majority of M&S’s environmental impact was linked to products, and those are what the company will “always work on”.

“It’s never been more important that M&S has a constructive message for society and its customers that we’re bring something positive back to society,” concluded Barry. “Economic disruption happens, there’s always a race on to provide and satisfy customer need in a better way and that’s why we’re developing our online operations so rapidly. In doing that, you have to be honest.

“I’m gutted that we have to close these shops, but we have to do it. It’s just one of the great disruptions we’re seeing and having to respond to. We’re really excited about Plan A and how its helping M&S transform and prepare for a very different marketplace, not just economically through the shift to online, but also through the quality work for planet and people as well.

“It’s never been more relevant that M&S has a strong set of values and a delivery mechanism to support that through Plan A.”

Matt Mace

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