Last week, Marks & Spencer (M&S) issued its annual sustainability report. The yearly “Plan A” update from the £10 billion United Kingdom retailer outlines what the company has done to mitigate its impact on society on the environment. After all, the numbers themselves show the effects of M&S’ footprint: 20 million customers visit 1,064 stores weekly, 2,000 vendors that supply products for the stores’ shelves and 81,000 people work for the company across the world.
Overall, the company has made progress on its Plan A sustainability agenda, and considering its broad supply chain, M&S is fortunate: the High Street icon was unscathed by the horse meat scandal that rocked Britain and it had no ties to last month’s Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh.
So what has M&S accomplished in 2011-2012, and what new goals does the company have in sight for the next several years?
M&S states that its stores, offices, delivery fleets and warehouses in the UK and Ireland are now carbon-neutral. The company met this goal by improving energy efficiency at its stores, while purchasing “high quality offsets” to balance out the rest of its emissions. Overall, M&S’ CO2 emissions are down 23 percent since the company’s 2006-2007 fiscal year. Among the many statistics the company touts is the fact its stores’ energy efficiency per square foot has increased 31 percent since Plan A started in 2007.
As for waste, M&S’ most impressive accomplishment is the progress of its Shwopping initiative. The partnership with the non-profit, Oxfam, in which customers can drop off unwanted garments at M&S stores in the UK, has diverted almost 4 million articles of clothing out of landfills and netted the NGO £2.3 million for various programs. Other waste diversion initiatives involve more education. On food waste, M&S was vague—the company and other retailers need to do more than “educate” consumers in a country that wastes 30 to 40 percent of all food annually.
When it comes to fashion, the clothing M&S stocks in its stores have become far more sustainable than it was just a few years ago. From more recycled materials to the increased usage of eco-friendly materials, 41 percent of all M&S items now have a “Plan A” sustainable feature, up sharply from a few years ago. Shwopping has resulted in a women’s coat made from recycled fibers, and M&S also introduced a “sustainable” men’s suit comprised of organic wool with reclaimed plastic buttons.
Throughout its UK stores, M&S has rolled out more ethical food products. Sales of fair-trade certified food have doubled since 2010, which in turn diverts more money to the farmers abroad who grow crops from coffee to cacao. And with all the controversy over conditions in garment factories across the globe, M&S comes across as proactive when it comes to the oversight of its suppliers and their employees throughout the company’s supply chain. Since 2010, the company has offered over 240,000 employees training over a variety of governance, environmental and social issues. The company, however, was vague about how the training was actually delivered. Was this more than popping in a DVD at the front of a training room? How intensive was all this “training?”
Within its internal operations and stores, M&S gives the impression its stores were successful in engaging both customers and employees. On one hand, customers benefit from a variety of programs, such as nutritional information on dedicated sites where they can learn about the farmers and suppliers who stock M&S stores with their various products. Meanwhile, customers and M&S employees often work side-by-side, from beach cleanup in the UK to Christmas card recycling (199 tons last year) after the holidays.
Overall, M&S’ competitors can learn a lot about stakeholder engagement, transparency and materiality from the company. While the report is crammed with detail, it avoids the smarmy back-patting oozing from other CSR reports. The bean counting can be a distraction (74 leaks were fixed? Not 73 or 75?), but M&S is a company taking leadership on many sustainability issues with both deeds and its disclosures. The moniker “world’s most sustainable company” is debatable, but this more than 100-year-old giant is certainly in the running.
Based in Fresno, California, Leon Kaye is the editor of GreenGoPost.com and frequently writes about business sustainability strategy. Leon also contributes to Guardian Sustainable Business; his work has also appeared on Sustainable Brands, Inhabitat and Earth911. You can follow Leon and ask him questions on Twitter or Instagram (greengopost).
[Image credit: Leon Kaye]