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Leon Kaye headshot

Responsibility, Transparency and Customer Engagement Are Keys to Marks & Spencer’s Success

By Leon Kaye

Marks & Spencer (M&S) has long been a leader on corporate responsibility and sustainability within the retail industry. The venerable department store chain, which operates over 1,000 stores across the United Kingdom and three continents, makes the case that customers should be at the core of any company’s drive to stay profitable while becoming even more responsible.

The company’s decade-long 'Plan A' sustainability agenda is one full of painstaking details. For example, the retailer behooves its suppliers to adhere to a bevy of standards if they want their products stocked within the stores’ aisles and shelves. That is just one detail within M&S’s 13th sustainability report, which describes how a company employing almost 83,000 people and generating $14.8 billion (10.4 billion British pounds) can take on 103 various sustainability initiatives and also remain carbon-neutral.

The continuity is especially impressive considering that the company had three CEOs over the past 10 years, but those changes in executive leadership did not interfere with integrating sustainability deeply within its business practices.

Responsibility applies to people and the planet

Environmental sustainability is important to M&S’s Plan A, but its focus on human rights is even more impressive. The retailer’s recent human rights report, 60 pages long, is full of information on some of the world’s most pressing human rights challenges, how they could affect the company’s business and what steps M&S has taken to address them within its supply chain. Efforts the company has undertaken are all over the map, from working with NGOs to boost youth employment for those who have disabilities in Bangladesh, India and Sri Lanka, to its work on stamping out slavery within the Thai shrimp industry.

And M&S is complementing that work with its improved environmental performance. Store and warehouse energy efficiency in the U.K. and Ireland improved by 39 percent. Food waste also declined by 9 percent, largely due to a partnership with the social networking website neighbourly.com, which linked M&S to over 500 NGOs focused on hunger and helping the needy. Overall, now M&S claims 73 percent of its product have a sustainability attribute — up from 64 percent last year.

Don’t just talk about transparency, show it

Many companies talk about being transparent, but often those conversations launch after a firm has been busted and exposed on social media. M&S, however, is an organization that is far more proactive than many of its competitors. “Transparency has been a big focus for us,” Adam Elman, global head of delivery for M&S, told TriplePundit in an email. “We’ve responded to growing the trends and requests from stakeholders and customers to provide greater information about how we operate, our standards and our performance.”

Whether one wants to learn the the source of M&S’s meals at its food halls, or the factories in which its apparel is manufactured, the company shares such information with an online mapping tool. Anyone who is curious can click on a country, and then a factory, and glean some more information, on, for instance, one of the several garment factories in Bangladesh from which M&S sources some of its clothing items.

The company says it is also consulting with stakeholders and consumers to learn more about what they consider important on issues related to transparency. That information will be available by 2020. But in the meantime, M&S issues a quarterly newsletter to update those interested in the country’s global operations.

Bring customers along the company’s sustainability journey

M&S’s sustainability plan is hardly one that uses a top-down approach. Examples of how the company strives to inspire its customers include its Shwopping program, a clothing recycling initiative the company has operated in partnership with Oxfam since 2008. Shwopping garnered 2.7 million garments last year and over 24 million since it started eight years ago. Despite the program’s expansion to seven additional countries, Elman said this is the one program that M&S has deemed “behind schedule.” Customers who donate clothes gain points on the company’s loyalty program.

Customers can also do their part by choosing a charity, to which M&S will donate funds, every time they swipe the company’s loyalty card — and the company offers the option for customers to receive updates on these nonprofits’ progress if they wish. Also connected with this loyalty program is another staff and customer engagement program, 'Spark Something Good.' So far, this initiative has motivated 1,700 people, within and outside of M&S, to work with 24 NGOs on local community volunteering and social enterprise projects throughout the U.K.

“We’ve also put a lot of work, and are continuing to do so, to improve our corporate Plan A website to provide greater levels of information,” Elman said. But to date, the copious amount of information M&S already shares with the public serves as an example of how sharing information openly can only help both a company’s bottom line, as well as its reputation in the marketplace in the long term.

Image credit: Marks & Spencer

Leon Kaye headshot

Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.

Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.

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