This article published November 2016. For latest news THIS MONTH'S ISSUE


Marks and Spencer progresses on sustainability journey with Plan A

Marks & Spencer scooped the Coca Cola sponsored 2016 NACS Insight International Convenience Retail Sustainability Award for its Plan A, a programme designed to help protect the planet by sourcing responsibly, reducing waste and helping communities. Fiona Briggs talks exclusively to Plan A director Adam Elman about the retailer’s sustainability journey.

Plan A, Marks & Spencer’s ethical and environmental goals, was launched in 2007 as a 100 point, five-year plan. Having achieved its major goal of making its UK business carbon neutral, Marks & Spencer has introduced Plan A 2020, which consists of 100 new, revised and existing commitments, with the ultimate goal of becoming the world’s most sustainable major retailer.

By sourcing responsibly, reducing waste and helping communities, Marks & Spencer believes it can do its bit to help protect the planet. And it works with its partners, employees and customers around the world to achieve those goals.

Indeed, collaboration is a cornerstone of Plan A, as director Adam Elman explains.

“Collaboration has been fundamental,” he says. “No one retailer can resolve issues surrounding sustainability alone - it’s too big for any one company to try to deal with.”

Instead, Marks & Spencer states it aims to harness whole sectors such as the supply chain, other businesses and industry bodies to move forward on environmental goals.

Marks & Spencer, for instance, leads the Consumer Goods Forum’s Environmental Sustainability Committee, in tandem with Unilever, to identify issues for the Forum’s Sustainability Pillar.

According to Elman, there is room to win competitive advantage through initiatives like Plan A but it’s also important to work with others to drive the whole market. And, it’s here where the economics of supply and demand will bear fruit. If just one company is aiming to buy sustainable palm oil, for example, it is expensive. But if it’s an entire industry, it is far more attainable.

Health and wellness

Plan A has a clutch of objectives at its core including health and wellness. These cut across a variety of different stakeholders including employees and customers.

“We look after the physical health and wellbeing of our colleagues and from a customer perspective on the food side of things,” says Elman. “For example, we had the opportunity to take the “nasties” - artificial colours and flavourings - out of foods in 2007-8 and we have come up with products that are really healthy for our customers. People come to us for quality and we have a focus on coming up with great tasting, healthy food,” Elman says.

And, while Marks & Spencer food may command just a 4% share of the UK grocery market, it’s significant that the retailer has two of the biggest healthy eating brands in Count On Us and Balanced For You, formerly Simply Fuller For Longer.

Health and wellbeing spans charity involvement too. Marks & Spencer supports Macmillan Cancer Support and its World’s Biggest Coffee Morning initiative and Breast Cancer Now, raising funds through product sales, employees and customer fundraising, both in and out of store.

The new Sparks loyalty scheme provides further charity tie ups for M&S. When customers sign up to the scheme they can choose to support one of the retailer’s featured charities and every time they use the card, 1p is donated to their nominated charity.

The sustainability objectives in Plan A are equally wide-ranging.

“We tackle all of the issues really - in the supply chain, people, raw materials, factories, farms, operations and how people use our products. We are tackling all of the issues right across the value chain,” says Elman.

Business transformation

What has been vital is for Plan A to be embedded within M&S as a business transformation programme, as opposed to being a bolt-on environmental committee.

“It’s important for us internally that we are structured so that everybody is engaged and it’s clear how we run our business,” says Elman. “We’ve worked hard to engage colleagues and it is about business transformation, which fundamentally changes how we operate.”

And it’s very much a colleague and supplier-facing culture and process. “Our own people and suppliers are our key audience,” states Elman. Suppliers because they buy into Marks & Spencer’s unique brand values and colleagues because they are keen to work for a company, that through Plan A, has a bigger purpose and chimes with their own ethical values.

In that context, Plan A informs the day-to-day running of the company.

“Every decision, every contact and whoever is involved should be thinking “is there a better way to do this to support Plan A?”,” explains Elman.

“We still run a business but the work we have done for the last nine to 10 years has been to make sure that could happen and that people are trained up. It’s been built into the governance ie it’s in the sign off in a contract. We try and make it part of the process, as well as being in the hearts and mind. I guess that’s where training and engagement comes in,” he says.

There’s also a refreshing and open acknowledgement that not everyone can be an expert but, harking back to that drive for collaboration, Plan A can put people in contact with companies such as Unilever or Coca-Cola, which may have already tackled something similar.

Customer impact

While much of the work goes on behind the scenes, Plan A has a positive impact on customer sentiment too.

“There’s a small percentage of green crusaders and a small percentage who don’t care but the bulk of people do,” says Elman. “They are looking to businesses to make their life easier and, if they come to M&S, they don’t have to worry that the fish is sustainably caught, because it all is. We are making it easy for them. There is also a high level of trust within M&S so customers are not actually surprised that all our fish is sustainably caught, rather they expect it.”

For Elman that’s Marks & Spencer’s real point of difference versus other retailers on the high street. The challenge is making people aware of those differences.

One new initiative is helping to address that goal. M&S already gives colleagues time off to volunteer in their local communities but more recently it has been inviting customers to join them on a city by city basis. Elman reports thousands of customers have got on board with the initiative and they are staying involved at the charities where they volunteered. “That’s getting customers to understand the Marks & Spencer difference,” Elman says.

Differentiation is also achieved at product level with healthier, more sustainable and innovative products plus positive, and less negative, press reporting about the business.

For Plan A, meanwhile, reporting has always been transparent and accessible both to the public and to the international retail industry.

“The Plan is written to be accessible to everyone. Our own people are interested in the technical aspects. Customers are not interested in the individual targets but certain topics; so it’s about story telling and engaging with them in the right way,” Elman says.

Local impact

Engagement is increasingly at a local level too, says Elman. “Through Plan A we are tackling local and global issues but people care about family and community, so we tackle all issues but try to make them feel local,” he says.

Macmillan, for instance, is a national charity but events are staged at local level up and down the country and M&S supports local Macmillan nurses. The Sparks loyalty scheme also enables the retailer to tell individual stories, relevant to customers’ nominated charities, for example.

Future proofing

Like much of Plan A, the 2016 NACS Insight International Convenience Retail Sustainability Award, sponsored by Coca-Cola, was an acknowledgement of Marks & Spencer’s people and its suppliers.

“Really for us, awards are about our people and suppliers and it is recognition that they are obviously doing a good job but that there’s always a lot more to be done,” Elman says.

That said, Plan A does provide a remarkable roadmap towards a more sustainable future.

“We’ve certainly seen over the last decade that retailers recognise the opportunity and need to change. Everyone is seeing the issues affecting their supply chains and what customers’ expectations are. We still believe that this can’t be about the ‘small team on the side’ and you need to get everybody on board. We believe it’s the right approach but each business needs to think it’s the right approach for them.”

It must also entail tackling all of the issues, not just the more marketable ones; and it needs support throughout the organisation, Elman adds.

“That said, we have a very strong business case for this - it saves us money and makes us more resilient. It’s good for business,” he says. “And we are always happy to share what we have been doing. We don’t have all the answers and it’s as much about hearing from others and finding opportunities to work together. Sustainability is a journey not a destination,” he concludes.

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Fiona BriggsFiona Briggs Freelance retail business journalist

Fiona is an experienced journalist and editor, writing exclusive content for GCSF. She is founder of retailtimes.co.uk. She contributes regularly to NACS Magazine and writes articles on omnichannel shopper trends for Radial. Fiona is available for commissions at fionalbriggs@gmail.com

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