M&S's Dutchman gets off to a flying green start

As a new Marks and Spencer store opens – covered in 62 species of plants – Marc Bolland explains that this is just the start of his eco-revolution
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The Sheffield store opening isn't just any store opening, it is a Marks & Spencer store opening – and it's the retailer's greenest yet. Outside the Ecclesall Road Simply Food shop, 62 species of plants are rooted in a "living" wall.

The rest of the building is made from reclaimed local brick. Even more plants are on the roof, while inside the store, enormous windows let in as much sunlight as possible, so the lights come on only when the sun doesn't shine. The floor is polished concrete and there are natural air vents to the sky above. Below ground, rain water is collected to flush the toilets and water the green wall, and in the car park are electric car-charger plugs. The staff have been "green" trained, to know all the credentials of the materials used in the store.

It's M&S's most exciting "sustainable" shop experiment yet and for Marc Bolland, the new chief executive, his first big green step since taking over from Sir Stuart Rose in May. He was in Sheffield for the store opening – his first – on Thursday and clearly relished the chance to cut the ribbons, gladhand the local dignitaries and welcome shoppers and staff.

It was also something of a homecoming for the Dutchman, who spent three and a half years in Yorkshire as chief executive of Morrisons.

I caught up with him for the trip and sneak a chat in the staffroom upstairs to find out how he is moving Sir Stuart's "Plan A" green campaign up a gear. This new store is a "learning" one, he says, so any mistakes will lead to design tweaks for the other new stores at Stratford, close to the Olympic village in east London, in September and Cheshire Oaks on Merseyside next year.

Bolland likes to show that he's not just following his predecessor, but has his own green credentials – while Sir Stuart was looking at Plan A, Bolland was working on a similar project at Morrisons. He reminds me, too, that Morrisons won the Carbon Trust's grocer and retailer of the year award under his watch in 2008.

"We have to be a sustainable company – it makes business sense. Being sustainable can make savings on the profit and loss – whether they are immediate savings, such as reduction in energy and packaging, or savings in the future," he says. "Sustainability is not a fashion. That is what makes us special."

Despite being slap-bang in the middle of a period of austerity, Bolland doesn't think investment should be cut back. The Simply Food shop in Sheffield was a rare opportunity for M&S to build a store from scratch. Usually it fits out the shell of a store that a developer has built. The Sheffield store costs 6 per cent more to build than a normal Simply Food, but will save 30 per cent on energy and 40 per cent on water.

"We have a responsibility as a company to make sure we live in a better world in 10 years' time. The innovation that I talk about is around product, but it is also around the stores."

What else is he planning? Bolland wants M&S to shout more about how it creates products, not just sells them. For example, he's really proud of its killer-heel technology – with insole technology to create "killer heels that don't kill" – and even asks me if my four-inch heels are from M&S. Sadly, they aren't. Bolland says that the shoes are proving hugely popular, and that sales have risen 70 per cent since adverts with model and television personality Lisa Snowdon appeared.

"And," he adds, "we will innovate in all categories, from lingerie to beauty. We will keep up the progress we have made."

Some analysts thought the 700-store Simply Food portfolio might shrink; its rivals have been making plans to cut back. Sir Philip Green is looking at closing up to 300 Arcadia stores when their leases come to an end in favour of bigger and better but fewer shops, and upping the online presence.

But Bolland dispels any suggestion of mass closures. "Our shop-your-way initiative aims to bring everyone within a 20-minute drive of a store. So our customers can shop in-store, online, on their mobile phone, and pick up at stores. Our property team is still looking at the map, and it is on a store-by-store basis of how we expand, where there are the right opportunities.

"We will open new stores and we will also relocate stores. As I set out in November, we will grow our portfolio by just under 3 per cent this year."

Even though household incomes are being squeezed, M&S defied analysts' predictions and reported better than expected like- for-like sales at its fourth-quarter trading update earlier this month. Food sales were up 3.4 per cent, while clothing was down only 3.9 per cent. This means that, across the group, sales were up 2.3 per cent on last year, much healthier than at many other retailers. So far, Bolland's start has been solid but not revolutionary. He has hired Tesco's former online boss, Laura Wade-Gery, and made the bold move of planning to take M&S back to France. Analysts reckon he hasn't put a foot too far wrong and Sheffield looks like another good step.

On current trading, Bolland says: "We are pleased with our customer base. We have young and old, male and female. We have a broad customer base – 21 million customers. We want to give them more choice, innovation and strong values. And we will not compromise."

But, he smiles, "I'm not here to talk about trading. Let's stick to Plan A."

How has he enjoyed his first year? Has it been difficult taking over from Sir Stuart, who became something of a celebrity both inside and out? "This isn't about making a name for myself." he says "It is not about putting my stamp on it. This is about business, and keeping the business profitable."

And if he carries on bringing in the shoppers, his competitors will be going green too – with envy.