What should the ethically aware shopper make of M&S’s groundbreaking environmental initiative, asks Simon Birch
Not so long ago eco-revolutionaries were to be found hanging out in treetops or were dug-in, deep underground, heroically opposing new airport and road schemes, delighting in their lifelong boycott of both soap and shampoo.
It’s a mark then of just how far the environmental message has been mainstreamed that the latest eco-revolutionary is a clean-cut, suited middle-aged businessman who heads up what is for middle England the country’s most cherished shopping institution: Marks & Spencer.
No Plan B
This January, Stuart Rose unveiled ‘Plan A’, a hugely ambitious and far-reaching £200million programme of action to give the retail giant a head-to-foot environmental makeover, with the aim of making M&S the greenest retailer in the land.
By adopting a 100 point plan, Rose has put his reputation on the line with the claim that within five years M&S will become carbon-neutral, send no waste to landfill and set new standards in ethical trading.
“Every business and individual needs to do their bit to tackle the enormous challenges of climate change and waste. Our customers, employees and shareholders now expect us to take bold steps and do business differently and responsibly,” said Rose at the launch of the initiative. “We are calling this ‘Plan A’ because there is no ‘plan B’.”
A round of applause from the greenerati
In response, the UK’s greenerati has given Plan A a thundering round of applause: “It raises the bar for everyone else, not just retailers,” says environmental guru Jonathon Porritt.
Greenpeace and the World Wildlife Fund have given a similar enthusiastic endorsement. Even Friends Of the Earth, which is campaigning against the increasing and excessive power of the big supermarkets, nods its head in agreement:
“Unlike Tesco and Sainsbury’s, which have announced single issue initiatives, M&S have recognised how every aspect of their business is related and have joined up all the environmental dots, so in this respect, yes, it’s impressive,” says FoE’s Vicki Hird.
Clearly Plan A is a major environmental step forward and, if all its targets are met, it has the potential to bring about positive change on a huge scale because as a result of the M&S policy of only selling its own-brand food, it has direct influence over more than two thousand factories, ten thousand farms and 250,000 workers.
So what's the problem?
So given all that is so positive about Plan A, why is the Ethical Sceptic feeling so uneasy about the whole thing? Well firstly it’s partly to do with the fact whilst it’s a good thing that M&S is heading down the environmental bicycle-lane, isn’t this what all responsible businesses should be doing anyway?
Why make such a fuss about something that shouldn’t be merely a voluntary add-on but an absolute necessity, in much the same way that health and safety practices and employment protection are a mandatory part of corporate life.
It’s this voluntary approach to ethical trading, for example, that is worrying ActionAid. “If Plan A delivers real progress in cleaning up M&S’s act then it’s clearly welcome,” says ActionAid’s Jenny Ricks. “But while M&S are talking the talk on ethical sourcing, we recently found that constant demands for lower prices has driven down pay and conditions for workers on banana plantations in Costa Rica”.
The problem - and one which applies to all supermarkets - is that currently all policies on applying ethical principles to supply chains are merely voluntary. Along with other groups, ActionAid believes that these principles need to be made mandatory.
Think global, shop local
The other main area for concern is that the Ethical Sceptic suspects that no matter how hard it tries, a supermarket the size of Marks & Spencer with its £9billion turnover can never truly be green.
Andrew Simms, the director of the New Economics Foundation, agrees. “It wouldn’t be an issue if the food grocery market was made up of a good balance of small, locally owned shops and much bigger supermarkets. However, it isn’t. What we now have is a situation where the big supermarkets totally dominate the food market.”
And even though M&S aren’t in the same league as the big four supermarkets, with its current policy of aggressively expanding its Simply Food convenience stores M&S is none the less helping to drive small, independent shops out of business.
“These small shops are absolutely vital for a vibrant local economy, play a key role in sourcing local food, prevent our town centres and high streets from becoming uniform and standardised as well as providing a range of markets for farmers to supply,” argues Simms.
To try and stop small shops going the same way as the dodo, FoE has recently launched a ‘shop local’ campaign.
"Even though M&S is now greening its business,” concludes Hird, “if you can manage to leave the car at home and buy locally-sourced food, it’s still a better option to shop locally.”
From Ethical Consumer issue 107, July/August 2007