Blog: Dean BestConsumers central to sustainability push, says M&S chief

Dean Best | 19 June 2012

Bolland repeated his call for business to put consumers at centre of sustainability initiatives

Bolland repeated his call for business to put consumers at centre of sustainability initiatives

Five years since Marks and Spencer launched its Plan A programme to make the UK retailer a more sustainable business, the company today (19 June) outlined its progress to date. Chief executive Marc Bolland used the event to urge business to put consumers at the centre of their sustainability strategies to drive real change.

M&S is, like Unilever, one of the companies in our sector that is at the forefront of embedding sustainability at the heart of its business.

Sure, the upmarket UK retailer has work to do but its Plan A initiative has been an example of how companies in the FMCG sector can systematically alleviate their impact on the environment and, crucially, be accountable for its actions.

The company outlined its progress in meeting its Plan A targets earlier this month but, at an event in central London today, it met stakeholders to discuss its programme - and its plans for the future - in more depth.

Bolland waited until the end of the event to make his plea to the wider business world that consumers are key to any moves to make companies more sustainable.

The M&S boss has said this before but it is a message worth repeating. Just last month, on these pages, I wrote that companies that want to implement a successful sustainability strategy needed to take consumers with them.

However, clearly the plea has far more weight if made by an industry heavyweight like Bolland and the Dutchman repeated his call this morning.

"If you can't get the engagement of the 20-year-old consumer somewhere, we will always behind the curve," he said.

And, Bolland argued, with the increasing affluence in the East, engaging consumers was more important than ever.

"The consumer is still living the American Dream," he said. "The American Dream is to have more and more and a much more materialistic dream than we have ever had before. The issue is not in the West; the issue is that consumption dream is very much in the emerging markets."

Bolland's comments underlined how M&S, for all its work in its supply chain, recognises encouraging changes in consumer habits are vital to any successful sustainability strategy.

The importance of consumers is, in fact, highlighted by one of the initial Plan A targets M&S missed. It did not meet its target on organic food sales because the recession hit sales in the UK.

Its Shwopping campaign, in which it encourages consumers to hand in unwanted clothes for recycling, is a clever way of trying to stop shoppers dumping bags of unwanted garments at landfill.

The retailer has made progress in its food halls without the major marketing investment it has put behind the Shwopping push; Fairtrade food sales are up 88%, for example.

However, a similar grocery marketing campaign will only help to engage consumers with the issue of sustainability.

Of course, Bolland's comments on consumers in emerging markets highlight one of the challenges facing multinational FMCG giants; how to encourage shoppers in India and China hankering after Western products to think in a sustainable way.

Some of Bolland's peers see the challenge as an opportunity. Unilever CEO Paul Polman told just-food earlier this year that it could be easier to encourage sustainable consumption when economies are evolving.

"You can design better when you design from scratch. You can design green cities. It's difficult to do in this part of the world. While everybody aspires to live like a European, you can design what that means in a more sustainable way," he said. "It is more difficult to change ingrained consumer habits than to leapfrog like in the emerging markets to the right habits. I am actually more encouraged about the emerging markets."

Of course, this week, the world's political and business leaders are in one of the key emerging markets to discuss the challenge of alleviating consumption on the environment.

The Rio +20 conference is taking place - as the name suggests - 20 years after the Brazilian city hosted the Earth Summit, at which international treaties on climate change and biodiversity were signed.

Later this week, just-food will be looking at the kind of issues that could be discussed at the conference and how they could impact the sustainability debate and the sustainability programmes of consumer goods business around the world.


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