Friday, 13 May 2011

The M&S Effect: bin bags, business sense and Barry

Who wouldn’t agree to give old clothes to charity rather than see them end up in landfill? Few of us, right. Yet, the rubbish tip is where most of it goes: 80% in the case of Marks and Spencer. So for the last three years the UK high street retailer has been engaged in an intriguing experiment. It’s been effectively paying people to recycle. Anyone who heads down to an Oxfam store with a bag of unwanted clothes gets a £5 shopping voucher. The idea has been a roaring success with us, the consuming public. Oxfam has collected over seven million garments – that's an item from almost one in every eight UK residents. 

There are two conditions to the scheme. First, at least one of the recycled items must be an M&S product. Second, the £5 can only be used against purchases in M&S of £35 or over. Both make eminent sense. M&S wants to cut down its environmental footprint. By including its own clothes in the deal, the retailer can justifiably say it’s doing its bit (3,500 tonnes of it). As for the £35 requirement, the business rationale is self-evident. Oxfam is in the business of reducing poverty. More clothing donations means more funds to do just that. M&S is in the business of making profits. Persuading people to come into its stores and spend is therefore fundamental. A voucher helps towards that. Consumers feel happy (they’ve collectively pocketed vouchers worth over £7.5 million so far), as does M&S (whose tills are busier).

This kind of alliance is just one of a growing number of savvy corporate-charity tie-ups. Kingfisher provides another example. The home improvements retailer has joined up with an environmental non-profit to promote its ‘eco-products’ range. Again, the benefit is mutual: sales are higher, and the planet’s resources safer. Hard landscaping company Marshalls, meanwhile, joined with a local charity in India to provide educational alternatives for child quarry workers (the programme was singled out for praise at Ethical Corporation’s recent annual Awards). The examples are a world away from the days of cheque-book philanthropy and tree-planting CEOs. Ethical Corporation’s new Briefing on NGO Partnerships describes the latest best practice in strategic, outcome-orientated alliances. (It also highlights the pitfalls to partnership and how to avoid them).

The M&S/Oxfam case is interesting for another reason too. The UK retailer is working to meet a raft of sustainability targets, announced back in 2007 under its Plan A (“There’s no Plan B") programme. Much of the ‘heavy lifting’ – cutting waste, making factories more resource-efficient, minimising transport-related emissions, etcetera –can be done by the company itself. But for M&S to achieve its most ambitious sustainability goals, it must get others on board: suppliers, business partners, government and – yes, us - the consumer. 

Influencing public behavioural patterns is no easy task. A small ‘eco warrior’ contingent will do the right thing regardless. Equally, a renegade minority won’t, however many vouchers you give them. But most of us sit somewhere in between – needing a gentle nudge or the knowledge that ‘everyone else is doing it’ (what Mike Barry, head of sustainable business at M&S, calls “consumer tribalism”). 

The Oxfam recycling project is genius because it makes choosing the sustainable option both easy and attractive. Like buying fertiliser-free food (who prefers chemicals on their plate when given the choice?), or purchasing ethically sourced coffee (ditto, who’d rather their coffee promoted worker abuses?). Companies can’t force us to ‘do the right thing’. But they can present us with options that take the hassle out of doing what – in our more principled moments – we know to be right. So, about that clear-out . . . 


Note: Working hard in the trenches for years, Mike Barry has done more than anyone to integrate sustainability policies and processes into M&S's day-today operations. Here’s a link to an interview Ethical Corporation did with him nearly a decade ago. Those efforts crystallized three years ago in the company’s ambitious ‘Plan A’. His task since has been to start turning M&S sustainability goals into practice. That work has come to the attention of The Guardian, which has shortlisted him as its Corporate Sustainability Innovator of the Year. The winner will be decided by public vote. Click here to see the other nominees and have your say.  

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