Marks & Spencer sets out its sustainable stall

M&S, which aims to be the world's most sustainable retailer by 2015, made 80 new ethical and environmental pledges yesterday. It insists its policies make commercial and moral sense – but is its growing 'Plan A' project simply hype or a real effort to promote sustainability and save precious resources? James Thompson reports

/ employer initiatives Green engagement

The high-street bellwether wants customers to engage with its Plan A through a competition. "Your Green Idea" encourages shoppers to submit ideas for environmental change and offers a £100,000 prize for the winner.

Sally Uren, of the development group Forum for the Future, said M&S had "not done badly" in engaging customers with Plan A, but added that yesterday's announcement was a big step forward in terms of its commitment to putting sustainable products on shelves. She said: "There is a much more overt desire and willingness to bring its consumers with it and to try to really accelerate this." Ms Uren said 70 per cent of a product's carbon footprint depended on how it was used, such as low-temperature washing powders, which M&S has previously highlighted. Mike Barry, the head of sustainable business at M&S, said it was stepping up engagement with its 75,000 staff and had begun offering staff free home insulation.

The verdict

M&S aims to prompt shoppers to join its environmental agenda by promoting awareness and selling more "green" products. But it needs to shout louder about its initiatives and deliver the message in its advertising.

Supply chain: Plan for eco-factories

The company will take the methods used at its four "eco-factories" in Wales, China and Sri Lanka and demand them from suppliers across the world. Mr Barry said: "There is a powerful business case to go green in the supply chain and we intend to apply it across hundreds of food and hundreds of clothing factories."

M&S claims it will save £50m in 2009-10 as a result of Plan A, which was launched in 2007. In a bold move, it has promised that by 2020 every one of the 2.7 billion items it sells each year will be a Plan A product, with "at least one sustainable or ethical quality", such as Fairtrade or Marine Stewardship Council certification. It has also committed to becoming the first major retailer to ensure the "full traceability" of the key raw materials used in its clothing and home products, including cotton, wool, polyester, nylon and leather.

Dax Lovegrove, head of business and industry at WWF, said: "Leading retailers, such as M&S, are looking beyond their operations upstream in the supply chain and downstream to empower customers."

The verdict

War on Want alleges that while "eco-factories look great, this does not translate into workers' welfare". M&S's commitment to make all of its products sustainable or ethical could be hard to achieve.

Workers' rights: Pay and conditions

The chain is committed to agreeing a "fair, living wage" with its clothing suppliers in Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and India which will be rolled out in factories in these countries before 2015. M&S says that, based on trials at three factories in Bangladesh over the past 18 months, it can do this by raising productivity and improving management practices.

Yesterday, the company again distanced itself from the factories of Primark, the discount fashion chain, which campaigners have previously expressed worries about.

Mr Barry said: "There is a small overlap between the two businesses. There might be a few, such as three, four or five [shared factories]."

An spokesman for M&S added later that it only shared one factory with Primark out of the 600 which make M&S clothes. But industry sources claimed that, including fashion accessories and footwear, Primark and M&S shared 37 factories globally. Simon McRae, the senior campaigner at the charity War on Want, said: "Our experience is that [M&S] are not much better than other high-street players and none of them pay a living wage."

The verdict

Delivering such promises on a huge cross-border scale – in an industry of cut-throat pricing – will be a huge challenge.

Climate change: Materials to lighting

M&S is making a series of fresh commitments related to climate change. Not least, it has vowed to become the first major retailer to ensure that six of the key raw materials it uses – soya, cocoa, beef, leather, coffee and palm oil – will come from sustainable sources that do not contribute to deforestation. Mr Barry said: "I don't think anyone in the world has done anything on this scale before," adding that the retailer had already started its work on palm oil.

However, its stores account for the bulk of its carbon footprint. The company's original target in 2007 was to cut its energy use in stores by 25 per cent, but this has been increased to 35 per cent, including halving its carbon emissions from refrigeration by 2015. M&S has also cut the level of emissions from its fleet of lorries. Globally, it plans to convert 100 clothing factories into eco-friendly formats that use more energy-efficient lighting.

The charity WWF is working with M&S to source sustainable timber and minimise its water use, for example by taking cotton only from fields in India that are sustainably irrigated.

The verdict

M&S's targets for reducing the carbon footprint of its stores and lorries are similar to those of rival grocers, but plans for key raw materials are significant.

Recycling: Oxfam deal follows bags initiative

Having started charging food customers 5p per carrier bag in 2008, the number of bags used fell by 387 million last year. There has also been a 16 per cent reduction in the amount of M&S food packaging used.

In a further initiative, the company plans to increase the number of clothing garments that its customers recycle each year, from two to 20 million, through its partnership with the charity Oxfam. This will cut the amount of waste sent to landfill sites.

"Previously, we had too much packaging in our food halls," Mr Barry said. M&S has also pledged to source all if its cardboard from its sustainable forest programme by instilling "gold standard" forestry management practices. About half of its sales are of food and, by 2012, all of the 10,000 farmers who supply fresh meat, dairy produce and flowers to M&S will have to join its sustainable agricultural programme.

The verdict

In recycling, the company has been a pioneer. Its move to cut plastic bag use was bolder and braver than any of the supermarkets and against the wishes of many of its customers. The joint venture with Oxfam was radical and has already delivered substantial results.

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