Marks and Spencer has experienced a remarkable turn around in its fortunes since 2004 when Stuart Rose took over as chief executive and fought off a takeover bid from his former boss Philip Green, owner of Arcadia. The recovery plan centred on cost cutting, revamping stores and advertising campaigns to reinvigorate the brand.
The retailer emerged as a leader in environmental management in the late 1990s but it was not until 2006 that it chose to trumpet its achievements through its "behind the label" advertising campaign.
"There’s no doubt CSR plays a very important role in differentiating the brand," said environmental manager Rowland Hill. "There’s always been an expectation of ethical behaviour, high quality products, and inevitably this attracts a higher proportion of A to C1 affluent, educated consumers."
In January, Marks and Spencer announced a 100-point "eco-plan" designed to keep it ahead of its rivals. Mr Rose promised the company would "change beyond recognition the way it operates".
Many of the targets, such as those for reducing energy consumption and packaging, will also save money. "There’s no way we’d spend the money unless we thought it would ultimately be good for the business," Mr Hill said.
The announcement included endorsements from environmental groups. Greenpeace said "if every retailer in Britain followed Marks and Spencer’s lead it would be a major step forward", while WWF said the firm’s "bold aspirations" could only help drive other retailers towards supplying products in a way that sustains natural resources.
Marks and Spencer deserves such accolades. Although other supermarkets have similar programmes, none has set out its stall so publicly or comprehensively.
The plan covers the five years up to 2012 and includes commitments in five areas:
Carbon offsetting will be used "only as a last resort", and will probably account for around 5% of the target, said Mr Hill. Where offsetting is used, the company will allocate the cost to individual business units as an incentive to cut carbon emissions.
Marks and Spencer has committed to buy as much food from the UK and Ireland as possible and double "regional" food sourcing within 12 months.
It will also minimise the amount of air-freighted food, which will be labelled as "flown". Only 4% of the firm’s food - mainly produce - is air-freighted into the British Isles, but this has a far greater impact on climate change than home grown produce.
The issue of food miles is rising up the political agenda. Two weeks earlier, Environment Secretary David Miliband told a farming conference that "greenhouse gases generated in producing food or in food miles need to be recognised in the same way as greenhouse gases generated in other industries". At the same conference, Tory leader David Cameron urged consumers to buy as much food produced in Britain as possible.
But the International Institute for Environment and Development warned that concern about food miles could deprive developing countries of vital overseas markets. "Airfreight of produce from sub-Saharan Africa accounts for less than 0.1% of total UK carbon emissions", said IIED’s Bill Vorley. "Far greater emissions result from the domestic transport of food goods within the UK."
Marks and Spencer plans to use 50% biodiesel in all its lorries and is conducting trials at two depots using fuel supplied by Greenergy. Tesco, which has a 25% stake in Greenergy, announced in December that three-quarters of its distribution fleet will run on 50% biodiesel from January.
As well as exploring the environmental benefits of various biofuels, the company will assess whether it would be possible to produce Fairtrade biofuels using crops from farms operating under Fairtrade standards.
Marks and Spencer will also open a model "green" factory with a supplier and establish a programme to enable suppliers to exchange best practice and encourage them to reduce their carbon emissions. A "carbon challenge" run with the Women’s Institute and a campaign run by the Climate Group will encourage customers to cut carbon emissions.
As the landfill tax escalator is bringing the cost of various technologies into line with landfill, other supermarkets are exploring food waste treatment. Tesco, for example, is exploring gasification to treat its food waste. Asda, which expects to stop sending waste to landfill by next year, is looking at in-vessel composting (see ENDS Report 379, p 18 ).
Packaging will be reduced by 25% and packaging materials must come from sustainable sources, such as cardboard certified according to the standards of the Forest Stewardship Council, or be suitable for recycling schemes or composting. This rules out PVC and polystyrene, and possibly beverage cartons.
Use of plastic carrier bags will be cut by a third and all plastic bags - currently 100% virgin plastic - will be made from recycled material.
A shortage of recyclate, due to strong demand from the bin bag market, could limit the recycled content of the new carrier bags, but Marks and Spencer will obtain feedstock from garment dust covers it uses to protect clothing in transit.
Another aim is to ensure that no Marks and Spencer clothing need end up in landfill. Around fourth-fifths of the one million tonnes of clothing discarded each year are landfilled. Marks and Spencer’s share of this market is about 10%.
The retailer may also allow customers to take recyclable clothing such as polyester fleeces back to its stores for recycling.
Mr Hill was unable to give a figure for the current proportion of products that meet the target except to say it is "fairly small". This may be largely due to the fact that demand for FSC timber greatly exceeds supply.
Similar supply problems mean that only 7% of the fish sold by Marks and Spencer are certified by the Marine Stewardship Council or another independent body even though its sourcing policies have been commended by Greenpeace. Marks and Spencer hopes all its fish will have such certification by 2012.
Other targets are to triple sales of organic food and to launch organic cotton, wool and linen.