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Deputy Diary: M&S - the retailer we should all aspire to be

How many of you can claim to be carbon neutral and send zero waste to landfill sites from your UK stores, offices, warehouses or delivery fleets? How many of you know how much landfill waste or CO₂ emissions you produce? How many even care? Be honest.

Marks & Spencer can and does. But we – the press, the peers – don’t bang on about it in the same way we scrutinise M&S’s quarterly results and, in particular, its relatively poor womenswear sales. Why not? Three reasons. One, journalists get far better headlines out of the latter; two, we measure success almost exclusively on quarterly sales figures; and three, we’re just not that interested.

In fact, we’re so uninterested that M&S had to get Al Gore to speak at its (sustainability initiative) Plan A conference yesterday. That’s one huge statement of intent. For us to listen to the dangers of climate change, for us to see how it impacts business, we need a Nobel Peace Prize winner, a former US vice president.

And Al Gore was spectacular. If he isn’t able to engage M&S’s stakeholders – for whom the event was for – with the retailer’s Plan A initiative to drive sustainability across business, then we’re all in trouble. Gore’s passion, intelligence and delivery were remarkable. As such, he bestowed M&S with the biggest accolade in sustainability by holding the retailer up as an example to all others. There is no better endorsement.

I wasn’t alone in my reverence for both Gore and M&S’s initiatives. One supplier said to me: “M&S sets a different agenda to many retailers; it’s an inspiration to all its competitors. The ethical elements are difficult to argue with, but the practice and execution are more difficult. Still, if something is worthwhile, it’s often not easy to achieve. And to be so public about it is difficult, to say to your suppliers unequivocally what you want from them…you know where you stand.  Al Gore was an excellent orator, and he’s able to back up what he says with facts.”

Among M&S’s Plan A pledges is the commitment to have at least one Plan A quality in all its general merchandise and food products by 2020, with 50% of products having at least one quality by 2015. These qualities include Fairtrade certification, animal welfare, sustainable raw materials and healthier choices for food.

By no means is M&S perfect; Marc Bolland will be the first to admit that. But it is a retailer that understands that running a business sustainably doesn’t mean running profits into the ground; that it has a responsibility to the planet and the welfare of future generations.

Gore believes that the way we traditionally approach business is to focus on things that have a price tag; that’s how we define value. “But the environment has a value,” he argues. “The education and employment of young people have a value. A beautiful sunset has a value.”

He went on to say to that “growth is the holy grail” for businesses, but how we define it is not without its faults. “GDP doesn’t make a lot of sense,” he continued, explaining that the man who came up with the concept of Gross Domestic Product – Simon Kuznets – warned against exclusively using it as a compass for economic growth because of its limitations. “We have a global water crisis, a topsoil crisis, but the depletion of natural resources doesn’t show up on a ledger sheet. Nor does the distribution of income, which leads to inequality.”

Gore summed up by asking us how comfortable we felt with a legacy of complacency. “Do we want our young people to say to us that we were so concentrated on quarterly numbers that we couldn’t see our future was at stake?”

Well, do we? I don’t.

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