Marks & Spencer (M&S) has long been a first mover in the retail sector on supply chain sustainability, garment recycling and human rights. Now the venerable United Kingdom department store chain, which operates about 1,000 locations across Europe, Asia and the Middle East, says it is pushing even more boundaries. A decade after its first “Plan A” sustainability commitments, M&S is setting 100 new targets to be reached by 2025.
For M&S, the evolution of its sustainability plan is not just about social and environmental sustainability. As is the case with much of the world’s retail sector, this is also about remaining sustainable economically. If M&S cannot thrive financially, then neither can many of the workers within the farthest reaches its supply chain or the citizens who live in close proximity to its 950+ locations across the UK.
The company, as is the case with many of its competitors in retail, is struggling. Its clothing sales have been flat, as are revenues generated by its popular food halls. The recent spate of news is a disappointment after the previous quarter, when the company reported its first sales increase in two years. Keeping in line with much of retail, the fall fashion lines at M&S are reported to be largely cautious.
But M&S is refusing to throw caution in the wind when it comes to its sustainability agenda, as it knows the company needs to be relatable to fickle consumers in order to survive. To that end, one of the standout bullet points in M&S lengthy Plan A 2025 is 'community involvement.' M&S has promised that by the end of 2025, the company will “transform” 1,000 communities. The program will start with 10 neighborhoods around its stores, with which M&S will work to boost economic, social and environmental benefits. Based on how this pilot program evolves, the initiative will expand to more communities at which M&S has warehouses, offices and of course, stores. The program builds upon its “Healthy High Street” program, a partnership with community organizations, town councils and other retailers to find ways to strengthen local economies.
Community engagement sums up the first of the three pillars that largely define M&S’ 2025 targets. Well-being is another pillar, one that M&S says it hopes to improve the lives of 10 million people in the UK and abroad over the next eight years. Again, healthy and happy people who feel as if they have gained a positive impact from M&S one way or another are, by and large, going to shop at the retailer. In part, that means across stores in the UK and overseas, healthier choices in food and personal care products will hit the shelves. For workers who are attached to the retailer through their work in the supply chain, they should have healthier lives too – M&S said key to this objective is sourcing 50 critical raw materials that come from sources respecting ecosystems, animals, communities and people.
Finally, “caring for the planet” rounds out the third pillar of M&S’ recharged sustainability program. If that sounds too cliché, then M&S has put it another way: zero waste. M&S has already dabbled in circular economy initiatives with its Schwopping program, a partnership with Oxfam in which consumers are encouraged to drop off unwanted clothing items at the company’s retail locations. The company has been a zero waste operation across the UK and Ireland since 2012, but now that goal is being expanded across the entire company worldwide – a huge challenge for the company considering the consumer education and engagement needed in markets such as India and the United Arab Emirates.
If the devil is in the details, then this devil will be easy to find – M&S has outlined its goals in minute detail, and has a history of not only following up on its objectives, but being frank about the instances when it falls short of its goals. The challenge of M&S is typical for much of retail – how to remain relevant in consumers' lives as shoppers migrate away from brick and mortar onto computers screens and smartphones. Nevertheless, if M&S can accomplish everything from including more local artisan producers into its sourcing to replacing all HFCs in its refrigeration systems, the company can prove it is relevant to people’s lives – making the company strong and viable in the long run.
Image credit: Leon Kaye