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Infusing ‘sustainability attributes’ in consumer products and their backend supply chains

Sustainability Outlook spoke to Adam Ealman, Global Head of Delivery (Plan A), Marks & Spencer about embedding sustainability attributes in retail products.

What is the footprint of M&S in India?

M&S has a retail business and a supply business in India. We have big plans to grow our retail business and we hope to double the number of retail stores from 47 to 100 stores by 2016-17.

Through Plan A, we have set some very challenging targets both for our operations, for the products and the supply chains which sit behind our products. A lot of the supply chain challenges arise when you try and engage with different suppliers to achieve these goals – we have noticed that many are relatively similar across different regions of the world.

If we look at the built environment in particular, we want to build our stores as sustainably as possible and we've included all sorts of new technologies. Some of our international stores are able to recycle all of our waste and many have gone solar as well. However, in India, we don't quite have the knowledge and experience as yet to do what we'd like to or be able to do. It's a matter of time and experience in a new country.

Are there any specific challenges in engaging with your Indian supply chains for retail and product?

I've been talking to the people who are in charge of delivering Plan A in India across the different arms of our business. What they've been telling me is that things are moving so fast in India and there is always a lot going on. Most people do not have the time to learn new skills or experiment with projects 'out of the norm'.

In the case of having green buildings, most people in India are just trying to get buildings built. For me, this is an opportunity where our knowledge and experience in the UK and elsewhere can be used, not only just to help ourselves, but also to help our partner contractors in India to expand their awareness of what is possible.

As an example of a simple operational challenge we are working with different people in every different locality in India. In the UK, we can work with one building contractor and cover the whole of the UK, whereas this is not possible in India.

Due to this, the partnership between M&S and our service providers will re-start at every step of our expansion program with each new vendor.

Nevertheless, we have five factories in the Indian region that meet our higher eco-factory standard - the actual figures vary by factory but will include energy efficiency and water efficiency in the region of over 10-20%, making good progress towards zero waste to landfill and may also have onsite renewables. I think overall there is progress being made, but I think it's just taking time to build up the knowledge and expertise.

Could you tell us about the type of products you are sourcing from India, or indeed, may be manufacturing in India and any initiatives to render these more sustainable?

 

We have goals to make sure that the products that we sell are sustainable - both in terms of materials used and the manner in which they are manufactured. We've got the Plan A commitment to do that. We are directly talking to our suppliers about this, and our suppliers are helping us achieve these goals.

Generally we work with a big goal in place, and then we work on the ground with our suppliers. For example, to meet our five Plan A goals in India, we have been up-skilling our suppliers to ensure they are improving their energy efficiency, reducing their waste, and have improved working conditions.

One of the things we have done is that we want every product to have a Plan A attribute i.e. something sustainable about it. This is not to say that it is going to be a totally sustainable product, but it will be better than typical norms and anything else on the market. A sustainability area might be ensuring sustainably sourced raw material and a specific attribute might be that a product has a certain percentage of BCI cotton. Around 70% of the products that we source from India already have one of these Plan A attributes.

In this respect, our Indian team is already doing a very good job in working with our factories and with material standards to ensure that products from India have Plan A attributes. What we want to do is to ensure all of our products have a Plan A attribute. Once we have achieved that, we want to ensure that our products can have two, three or four Plan A attributes.

 

 

We will be publishing a proper document in the next 3-6 months on the exact details of each Plan attribute, and what is required to ensure realization of Plan A attributes. This will cover all our products and supply chains globally, not just in India.

While these details will be released later this year, some of the key attributes that relate to these areas that are coming out of India include BCI Cotton, Eco Factory Status and Eco Dyeing Process.

How do you deal with a supply chain where you are not the only influencer in terms of the manner in which a product is produced?

We work closely with many other retailers and manufacturers. In the world of sustainability, it is very hard to do projects alone. For example, it is much easier for suppliers to help us meet sustainability goals if we [brands] are all asking for the same things to be done, and if we [brands] are all asking for the same information. It's important that we are not all asking our supplier base for slightly different things which makes it infeasible, confusing or difficult to source from them.

We work with different groups and brands to align our requirements and engagement with our supply-base, such as WWF for the Better Cotton Initiative. In addition to this, we also ask our suppliers to run trials or prototypes of new clean technologies or new processes for sustainability. We then invite other brands so that they can see these prototypes and to understand what's possible within the supply chain. We undertake this type of testing and trials and then we share this information more widely. This helps us speed up some conversations and create action more quickly. We are already talking and engaging with our supplier base all the time, to understand the issues and how we can help resolve the issues. We cannot resolve everything at once, but it does help us understand what those challenges are.

Do you think it's just reputational risk that is driving brands, individually or collectively, to work on sustainability issues?

Sustainability is one of the areas where it is fairly unique in terms of getting a number of brands to work together on a shared goal. And it's great to be able to that.

I think there is a reputation risk that is driving some of this collaboration, but actually, a lot of people have moved beyond the reputational risk to respond to the need to get the raw materials that we want, i.e., the availability of raw materials in these markets, and the ability to source this competitively from our supplier base for years to come.

Further, a lot of our customers are saying to us that, as a big business, our consumers want and expect us to act sustainably and ethically. There is a lot of competition among brands but there are still a number of opportunities to work together and improve things.

We are working with FedEx on logistics; a number of brands on ethical sourcing, and a number of local startups and NGOs on specific social sustainability issues.

We have begun to adopt sustainable technologies and data services within our supply chains. As these become embedded, I am sure it will give an opportunity for other large companies to come on board and implement similar initiatives in their own supply chains.

You have mentioned that you stay in close contact with your supply chain. Is this largely a communication or a monitoring mechanism?

I guess we call it 'beyond compliance'. We use solutions which enable employees at a factory to provide feedback anonymously, in their own time, as per their convenience. This is an opportunity for us to get real feedback on whether or not our factory interventions are working, and if they are not, we are able to identify missed opportunities and do something about it.

As we look towards India in 2040, in what ways do you think Plan A and other sustainability dialogues are likely to evolve and shape the future?

In recent years, for compliance reasons or off the back of consumer issues, increasingly brands and retailers have turned their focus on sustainability issues.

As we see the impacts of weather, availability and price increase in commodities, and volatility of the supply chain, we are starting to understand that focusing collectively in the sustainability space can really add value, while also being the right thing to do. In future, we can expect a greater focus from brands on questions of how can we do things to make our supply chains more sustainable and less volatile.

Author: Sustainability Outlook
Industry Term: retail ESG