Satisfying consumers: every product must be on the journey to improvement

The retail sector may be leading the way in sustainability but it has had a little help from its consumers. M&S' Mike Barry talks to edie about how the changing attitude of consumers is encouraging businesses to push their products and sustainability agendas to the limits.

Consumers today are looking to shop with socially and environmentally responsible corporations that go further than simply reducing energy consumption and waste.

Many companies have picked up on this behaviour change over the last few years and most have implemented business models that ensure they are taking the necessary steps to encourage sales, while improving resource efficiency throughout the supply chain.

M&S’ sustainability programme, Plan A, has been one of the more active and adventurous sustainability agendas of the last few years but the company’s’ sustainability manager, Mike Barry, says that this has only been achieved by listening to its customers and accepting that there is ‘a need for change’.

“All of our market research has told us that 80% of consumers are interested in environmental and social issues. But where the difference comes is that the people want it to be easy and their involvement in the journey to be easy and relevant to their lives.

“[Some businesses] often roll their eyes and say that people want to be green but never actually buy the more expensive green products and they say that’s evidence that people don’t actually care – I would say the exact opposite. Why should a consumer be forced to pay more for a product that hasn’t exploited people or the planet?”

“It’s the totally wrong approach, what we should be saying to consumers is ‘yes sir or madam you can have the same suit, the same television, the same car, the same mobile phone, the same ready meal – it’s produced to a much higher ethical and social standard and it’s not going to cost you more”.

He stresses that if a product is produced to a higher standard and does cost the consumer more, then management must have the knowledge to find ways of subsidising additional costs through energy or packaging savings.

Customer feedback has also highlighted that niche eco ethical ranges in the corner of stores are not meeting consumer standards on sustainability.

“Our customers want us to be working on all of the 2.9bn items we sell each year, not just a small selection. Every product must be on the journey to improvement”.

According to M&S’ marketing research, consumers say they want to be part of things that are relevant to their lives and where they can make a difference following a purchase.

“Consumers are saying ‘don’t give me a big detailed label about how much carbon has been saved on a suit’. That’s your issue and you should be managing that but help me recycle my clothing when I finish with it because I can actually influence that and do something about it'”.

Through consumer engagement the retail sector has established a solid foundation for improving the efficiency of its products and supply chain process.

This may be a distinct advantage and a good reason the sector is rising to the challenge but it has also helped businesses within the sector understand the needs of its consumers and how they want corporations to tackle these issues.

“People want to be part of a tribe – so if you try to tackle this ‘green’ thing on your own it can feel very intimidating. Being part of a tribe for change means we’re all doing one small thing to make a difference. And that’s why the M&S model is working because people feel part of that wider change”.

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