Leading by example

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Since its first beginnings in 1884, the retailer Marks & Spencer has evolved into something of a UK institution, adorning the High Street or shopping mall of most urban centres. In recent times, the affectionate abbreviation of their name to ‘Marks & Sparks’ has been streamlined as plain M&S; the long-standing St Michael trademark has been quietly dropped in favour of a string of demographically targeted brand-names such as Autograph; Per Una; Blue Harbour. Behind these labels, however, the quality of its products and level of technical innovation within its packaging has remained constant. Furthermore, no other store has become quite so synonymous with a particular brand of British life-style.
Despite the fact that its high profile commitment to delivering an environmentally-conscious future –  their much publicised £200m Plan ‘A’ – was only rolled out eighteen months ago, on closer examination it is apparent that M&S has had its eye fixed firmly on developing sustainable and efficient material usage over at least the past 40 years.

Whilst it’s probably remembered that it was the first UK retailer into chilled ready-meals, what may have been forgotten was that M&S effectively invented returnable transit packaging (RTP) via the introduction of rigid plastic trays in conjunction with Linpac – and which back in the ‘sixties, cut its annual usage of cartonboard by over 27,000 tonnes.

Finding smarter ways to reduce material whilst maintaining product integrity and ensuring that both technologies work in symmetry runs through a significant element of M&S’s 100-point Plan ‘A’, says one of its principal architects and head of packaging Dr Helene Roberts. ‘M&S is different from other retailers because of its brand values. OK, everyone says that of course, but because we have an independent line into technology we never make a decision that implicates or puts at risk any technical decision for commercial reasons. That’s quite fundamental to our business.
‘But there have to be commercial efficiencies; if it’s not economically sustainable you never drive change. Being environmental doesn’t have to make something more expensive. We cannot add costs to the consumer in this current economic climate anyway; it would be wrong to do that. Finding those ways in which we can take out unnecessary cost as well as driving environmental benefit has got to be the right way.’

A case in point was the substitution of FSC accredited board and PLA-film for the plastic sandwich skillet in ’02. Whilst one in every three sandwiches bought daily throughout the UK is from M&S, it is still the only retailer to have gone that route.

Focus on packaging
Whilst other retailers may also have positively committed to packaging weight reduction and a more responsible use of resource, M&S has always been mindful of environmental issues, points out Roberts. ‘In reality, although Plan ‘A’ was only wheeled out eighteen months ago, it was the pulling together of many of the things we’ve already been doing, and that are the DNA of this business.

‘We’ve always had an internal packaging team. Currently, it’s 30 people strong; that’s easily the largest team of any UK retailer, and includes specialists in artwork provision, print and design, all of whom have a tremendous understanding of our brand. We’ve not gone through the cycle that you see with other retailers: getting rid of their packaging teams towards the end of the ‘nineties, and then suddenly realising that there was an environmental agenda and so needing to have packaging people back in the business again or else pushing it back onto the supply base.’

It is said that it was M&S’s CEO Sir Stuart Rose who came up with the name Plan ‘A’ as an easy to remember label for an ambitious initiative aimed at implementing a more sustainable management strategy across five central areas: climate change; waste; healthier eating habits; trading ethics and material usage. A key objective is the reduction of its non-glass packaging by 25% prior to the London Olympics opening ceremony in 2012. Whilst the primary focus is on the UK, variations of Plan ‘A’ are also being introduced throughout M&S outlets abroad.

What Rose could never have anticipated was the way in which the marketing tag-line: ‘because there is no Plan B’, would have become widely adopted as the generic moral imperative applied to anything from the latest initiative to resolve the global financial meltdown to the revitalised composition of the national football team.

M&S certainly appears to have covered all the sustainability angles and captured the prevailing zeitgeist to boot – at least as far as the 15m shoppers who pass through its 600+ UK outlets each week are concerned – and despite the fact that its foot-fall doesn’t represent the other 75% of the population, must even so be making its competition green with envy. Helene Roberts believes that its influence extends far further than merely preaching to an in-store community made up of the already converted. ‘M&S will always make a headline; it’s a name that sells newspapers. How we communicate on-pack, how we communicate in-store doesn’t just directly affect the core customers that come to us, but I think that by showing a level of leadership and consistency that drives the industry in general.

‘I think that whilst we’ve got to change how we manage our operations, Plan ‘A’ is hugely reliant upon consumer behaviour as well;  it’s about helping people shape their behaviour; helping them to recycle more; encouraging them to wash their clothing at 30º. All of those things can make significant differences to overall carbon footprint.’

M&S’s ability to exert an influence upon consumer awareness beyond its captive audience was evidenced earlier this year, when the retailer decided to impose a charge on plastic bags at the check-out. Within the ensuing six-month period, usage of plastic bags had not only reduced by 80% but had also generated around £0.5m for several community-led environmental initiatives.

More to the point, not only have High Street retailers such as WH Smith and Boots directly followed their lead with other food multiples likely to take a similar step, but there are also signs that Government policy may be enacted to restrict excessive usage.