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Marks & Spencer Raises the Bar on Safe Use of Chemicals in Textile Production

| Tuesday October 30th, 2012 | 0 Comments

While its CEO was opening BSR last week (this talk will be covered separately later on this week), Marks & Spencer took an important step in its quest to become the world’s most sustainable retailer. This time it wasn’t about its consumers or stores, but about its supply chain.

In response to the Greenpeace “Detox” campaign, the company announced new commitments to make the use of chemicals in textile production safer, including the elimination of all releases of hazardous chemicals throughout its entire supply chain and products by 2020.

“These new commitments push the boundaries of the technology used in the textile industry and cement M&S’ position as a leader in the management of chemicals in the textile industry. We’ve worked closely with Greenpeace over the past three months to construct them and both parties agree that they will push us and our partners to new levels of knowledge and research,” Mark Sumner, Sustainable Raw Materials Manager at Marks & Spencer said.

If you don’t really remember the “Detox” campaign, it’s probably because it took place more than a year ago, after Greenpeace published a report (‘Dirty Laundry’) profiling the problem of toxic water pollution resulting from the release of hazardous chemicals by textile factories in China. Greenpeace identified many global brands that do business with the two Chinese factories profiled in its report, including Puma, Nike, Adidas, H&M, Li Ning, C&A and M&S, and started pressuring them throughout its “Detox” campaign to take action about it.

The smart campaign worked very well and couple of months afterwards, a group of major apparel and footwear brands and retailers made a shared commitment to help lead the industry towards zero discharge of hazardous chemicals (aka ZDHC) by 2020. M&S wasn’t among them, which was somewhat surprising given the leadership M&S exercised so far with its Plan A. Now M&S wants to fix it.

It’s not clear why it took to M&S so much time (or at least longer than the ZDHC members), but M&S eventually came up with commitments that are as good as the ones the ZDHC members published so far and, in some cases, even go further. Greenpeace, on its end, was very happy with the commitments, no matter how much time it took M&S to get them. “This commitment from M&S sets a new benchmark and they join H&M in showing real leadership on the issue of toxic water pollution,” Martin Hojsik, Detox Campaign Coordinator at Greenpeace International said.

So what do these commitments include? The first component is the launch of a training and education program for dyehouses on APEOs to help strengthen the M&S APEO ban issued in 1998. In other words, M&S already banned this group of chemicals, but apparently not all of its suppliers comply. Now M&S will work to ensure full compliance through measures like “strengthening our supplier contract language by the end of 2012,” and enhancing both training and auditing.

The second component is strengthening and improving the management of PFCs in the M&S supply chain, including a commitment to eliminate the use of all PFCs by July 2016. As M&S admitted, “this is a challenging target, where there are currently no technical solutions available. However, by taking a phased approach to the elimination of PFCs we believe we are setting out a clear benchmark to the industry.”

The third part is a commitment to zero discharge by 2020. In order to achieve this goal, M&S plans to set up mechanisms for disclosure and transparency about the hazardous chemicals used in its global supply chains. M&S will begin the process by the end February 2013, by releasing discharges data of five trial Chinese M&S supplier facilities, using an online platform and covering the 11 priority groups of hazardous chemicals identified by Greenpeace.

Transparency as a whole is a very important part of the process and M&S’ commitment. M&S has committed to publishing its Restricted Substances List and “increasing the public availability and transparency of our restricted substance list and audit process, set up public disclosure of discharges of hazardous chemicals in the supply chain.”

The announcement actually came just in time for M&S. Only two weeks ago the company, as well as other clothing brands, was criticized in a report published by a group of Chinese NGOs for the pollution caused by some of their Chinese textile suppliers. After the announcement, Ma Jun, Director of Institute of respected Chinese NGO Public & Environmental Affairs, who seemed to be very critical of M&S only two weeks ago, welcomed the commitment and called it a positive step forward.

While M&S seems to be ahead of the ZDHC members when it comes to some chemical groups (APEOs and PFC), it is still not clear if M&S will join the joint effort or work separately to develop the means to meet these goals. Either way, with these commitments M&S is definitely reclaiming its leadership position in the industry and is strengthening the case it makes for becoming the world’s most sustainable retailer.

Raz Godelnik is the co-founder of Eco-Libris and an adjunct faculty at the University of Delaware’s Business School, CUNY SPS and the New School, teaching courses in green business, sustainable design and new product development. You can follow Raz on Twitter.


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