As M&S’s head of general merchandise technology, Hundal leads the team that brought us anti-MRSA pyjamas and the non-iron shirt. He is also responsible for delivering the retailer’s Plan A eco strategy.
Krishan Hundal is stabbing a pair of tights with his biro to demonstrate their ladder-resistant properties. He has already poured water over a pair of men’s jeans and enthused over a new kidswear range that sports UV indicators to warn parents when the sun’s rays are at their strongest.
The relish with which he demonstrates how the retailer continues to deliver innovation on the high street is reminiscent of James Bond’s techno-savvy sidekick Q presenting 007 with another gizmo. Hundal and his team deal in Tomorrow’s World-style technology. “Some of my guys are world experts in their field and are invited to speak at international conferences about their work,” he says proudly.
Hundal, who has a BSc in materials engineering and an MSc in polymer technology, heads a team of 70 technologists in the UK and another 70 located in five regions overseas. Technology, he says, forms the backbone of what M&S stands for.
“The pillars of our business are quality, innovation and trust. If we make a claim for a product, it has to be foolproof. Take the Sleep Safe anti-MRSA pyjamas we launched three months ago.
“A Japanese fabric supplier came to us with the technology, which is based on silver having strong anti-bacterial properties and being woven into the fabric, offsetting the MRSA we all carry around on our skin.
“Our development team spoke to doctors, carried out blind testing in a hospital and had them approved by the British Medical Association before giving them the green light to go in store.
“The results of the tests were so positive that the doctors were urging us to get them out on the market after six months, even though they usually insist on 12 months of testing. Other retailers had been looking at the technology before we patented it, and apparently they were just going to make the claim for it and put it on sale.
“We could never do that. People expect M&S to have checked it all out. It’s part of the relationship of trust that we have with customers, and it is crucial to the business.”
The reputation of M&S is such that its technology team is regularly approached with new ideas. “Some things we get shown may seem quite spectacular, but when we ask what the benefit is to the customer, they just don’t have an answer. It’s the first question we always ask ourselves, and the answer has to be pretty convincing.”
Theappliance of science
There are certainly plenty of new ideas to look at, with the convergence of several technologies pushing the barriers of what is possible in clothing. Hundal says: “The power of batteries is growing and at the same time their size is shrinking. Things are happening so fast that batteries can now be printed onto a fabric. Commercial applications of that are probably only a couple of years away.
“Flexible digital screens you can bend in your hands are around today and although I don’t think that’s anywhere near right for clothing yet, we are already seeing solar panels in rucksacks and bags to charge phones, laptops and iPods. There is technology out there that will mean you can have a lightweight coat with its own heating system you can turn on when you feel chilly.
“In the early days, a lot of electronics in clothing were cumbersome and not user-friendly. If you take M&S’s iPod suit, that has come about because switching technology has become so sophisticated. Switches are now so sensitive to pressure that they allow you to do all sorts of things.
“I was at a conference last week on nano-technology where a guy was demonstrating how you could make fabric change colour. Having the choice of a jumper or skirt that could be red one day and green the next may be only five or 10 years away.”
Every technologist that works at M&S has innovation as one of their objectives. Hundal says this is one of the reasons why so many people want to work at the company.
“Being a technologist elsewhere on the high street is mainly about quality control – here it’s completely different,” he explains.
But he is keen to stress that a technologist’s role at M&S is not all about the bells and whistles of science. It is also about quality control, safety and most important of all, since the introduction of Plan A, sustainability and ethics.
Plan A is the retailer’s promise to itself and its customers that, among other things, it will strive to reduce its impact on the environment and become a fairer trading partner, and it is having an enormous impact on the work of Hundal and his team.
The five pillars of Plan A are to tackle climate change, reduce waste, use more sustainable raw materials, be a fairer trading partner and help customers and employees choose a healthier lifestyle.
It is Hundal’s team that is working to deliver these objectives through the clothing supply chain, with Hundal reporting directly to head of clothing Kate Bostock on Plan A. He says the great thing about the initiative is that it has been led from the top, with chief executive Stuart Rose impressing on the business that given its heritage, it should challenge itself in this way.
“Stuart has said that we can’t do it alone, that we don’t have all the answers, but that we are determined to make a difference. The technology team are really driving initiatives to start making that difference.
“We did a survey into our clothing products’ carbon footprint and discovered that 30% can be attributed to transporting the goods, 30% is in the manufacturing process and another 30% is about what happens to them post-sale.
“So we realised one of the biggest things we could do was encourage customers to reduce the energy they used when washing their clothes. We audited all clothing in the business and did a thousand tests before deciding that 70% of the offer we’d been telling customers should be washed at 40 degrees could actually be washed at 30.”
Hundal says the post-sale problem also brought about an initiative with Oxfam, where customers can donate M&S clothing at one of the charity’s shops in exchange for a voucher to spend on clothing at M&S. Hundal says:
“A million tonnes of clothing go to landfill each year. We wanted to help reduce that. Oxfam recycles clothing, so it made sense, and it is also making customers think more about where their clothing ends up.”
Recycling is becoming a big issue for retailers, and M&S is no exception. Although the company has been recycling its hangers for the past 10 years, it is now asking customers whether they want the hangers when they buy a product – a move that has seen its hanger recycling increase by 40% in the past year.
Hundal says the amount of plastic used for hangers is a huge issue, and one that is taxing his team at the moment.
“We are on a quest for the holy grail of hangers at the moment. We want to produce one hanger that will successfully do every job in the business. It’s incredibly complex because we have 20 styles of hanger within M&S at the moment. If we could reduce it to just one, the impact on recycling would be huge.
“Plan A sets us all sorts of conundrums such as this to tackle. For example, we produced wine carriers for our eco stores made from recycled fabric waste from old jeans. But then you have to ask yourself, is that the best way to use fabric waste, and shouldn’t we be aiming to get it further back up the value chain and into new garments by turning it into yarn? We are now working on that with a Sri Lankan supplier, which has 200 tonnes of fabric that is being recycled. These things are technologically very challenging.”
One of the ways M&S is looking to reduce its footprint in the production process is by setting up best-practice factories, which can then be used to spread good practices throughout its supply chain. Sri Lankan lingerie supplier MAS will open a carbon-neutral factory in May, and the aim is to open six across the business divisions, with at least half likely to be in clothing.
Hundal says: “We went to the supply chain and said we wanted to do this, and we had so many suppliers coming forward we had to shortlist it down to four or five before we picked MAS.
“Now two other suppliers in Sri Lanka are doing the same thing off their own bat. We also have a supplier in China very keen to get going on something, and we are passing on to them all the learnings that we gathered in building our green stores.”
Elsewhere in the production process, the retailer is using its considerable powers of persuasion to “encourage” suppliers to opt for greener technologies.
“We keep them up to speed on the most energy- and waste-efficient machinery, and try and do some of the maths on long-term costs versus price for them. We are trying to help suppliers move in the right direction. We were the first retailer to issue a single code of practice for all dye houses, which has set an industry standard.”
M&S recently published a first-year update on the progress of Plan A, and has set itself more challenging commitments on being a fairer trading partner in the future. Hundal says: “We listened to what the NGOs had to say about our approach and their criticisms. We are now trying to take a more holistic approach that tackles the whole package, from work environment to the workers’ voice being heard and the issue of a living wage, as well as how decisions made at M&S affect the supply base. There is lots to work through.
“It is brain-aching in its scope, because it’s not as simple as just paying people more – you have to consider the impact of that action. We have done a huge amount of research on this over the past six months. We are much more aware of the realities of it now, and are sharing our plans with key stakeholders such as the NGOs and suppliers in a bid to find a solution.”
Plan A has transformed Hundal’s job, because he now has to ensure that the technology within the business is adapting to keep up with the latest social and environmental trends around the world.
“Ethical standards have taken up a disproportionate amount of my time over the past three months but hopefully we now have a plan and clear commitments that are challenging and aspirational and, crucially, sustainable, so we can start to make an impact. I sound like a parrot quoting Stuart [Rose] again, but what he says is true. We are not perfect. We do not have all the answers. But we are sincere in our intentions.”
2006 Technical head for general merchandise
2004 Technical head for womenswear and general merchandise
2002 Technical head for menswear and technical services group
1996 Technical head for kidswear
1995 Technical manager for women’s accessories
1992 Menswear technologist, M&S
1990 M&S graduate trainee fabric technologist