Recessions are difficult times for most retailers but Marks & Spencer (M&S) arguably has a harder time than most. Not only does it endure the leaner pickings all retailers suffer, but it does so under the glare of the media spotlight. That said, one area where it looks set to stay well ahead of the game is in the sustainability stakes, as Mike Barry, head of sustainable business at M&S, tells just-style.

The retailer's iconic status means observers are inclined to look to M&S as an indicator of the general health of the market. The attention is essentially flattering if occasionally inconvenient.

Moreover, since the launch of its Plan A corporate responsibility platform in 2007, M&S is complementing its status as UK retail barometer with the additional mantle of corporate sustainability bellwether.

However, Mike Barry, head of sustainable business at M&S, plays down the retailer's status as a pacesetter on sustainability.

"In terms of business leadership, I think firstly M&S is not unique," he says, paying tribute to the sustainability efforts of companies such as Nike, IKEA and C&A in the Netherlands.

Barry stresses that Plan A, a five-year strategy covering climate change, waste, raw materials, health and fair partnership, is simply about prioritising some critical business drivers, namely consumer opinion, business efficiency, employee motivation and innovation.

Taking the lead
According to M&S's research, some 80% of its customers - around 21m people - say they want the retailer "to take a lead on environmental and social issues". 

Customers "very, very firmly expect it to be done," Barry adds, and the research suggests customer sentiment is getting stronger in this area.

Keeping employees motivated during "quite a challenging time in the retail space" is also important, and Plan A is helping in this regard.

But the other two drivers Barry isolates address exactly what so many companies say about sustainability nowadays, that it is good business.

Firstly, there is simple efficiency. "If you can save yourself money by less waste, less energy use, less water use, less packaging, that's good for the environment, it's good for you as a corporation." 

Meanwhile, sustainability should be seen as an opportunity for innovation. It will open up "new marketplaces" over the next 10 years, Barry says, and the company is aiming to be "well positioned to reap the benefits of those".

Measurable progress
Rhetoric is all very well but demonstrating measurable progress is becoming vital in the sustainability arena. Barry believes the retailer can show it is "delivering" on sustainability issues.

For example, he cites how it is looking to change customer behaviour on wash temperatures. Awareness of the environmental impact of care after purchase is a vital sustainability issue for the clothing sector, and Barry feels M&S has shown a good lead in this area.

He points out that as 70% to 80% of the carbon footprint related to clothing comes from the wash cycle, urging customers to wash at lower temperatures has a massive impact.

M&S now has labels encouraging consumers to wash at lower temperatures on 70% of its clothing.

"Since the launch of Plan A, I think we've shifted from 23% of our customers washing at 30° to 38% by autumn last year. So we're starting to make inroads on that issue."

M&S has worked with its suppliers to open greener factories, with "much lower carbon, water-waste footprints", in Wales, Sri Lanka and China. "The learning from that is then being spread to our wider supply chain," Barry adds.

Waste is another area where Barry says M&S has shown demonstrable improvement.

"In the last 12 months, we've driven down packaging use in our clothing business by 15%, so again that's beneficial. We've also driven down carrier bag usage."

Joint recycling initiative
However, Barry believes the most exciting recent achievement is the joint recycling initiative M&S has been running with Oxfam.

With some 80% of clothing in the UK thrown out after use rather than being reused or recycled, M&S launched an initiative with Oxfam to encourage customers to take their second-hand M&S clothes back to Oxfam stores, offering price-off vouchers for their next purchase at M&S.

In the first year, around 800,000 M&S customers donated clothes to Oxfam. "That's over 3m items of clothing, much of which would probably have gone to landfill," Barry says.

Oxfam has raised GBP1.8m (US$2.9m) from the initiative, while "about 55% [of customers] are bringing those vouchers back to M&S to spend again, which is much better than the traditional rate of redemption for marketing vouchers."

In July, the programme was extended to cover home furnishings.

Competitive advantage
There is no suggestion in any of this that corporate sustainability is about making sacrifices. In fact, precisely the opposite is true. Barry subscribes to the view that "for business really to be more sustainable there has to be a business case".

So the message is that there is real competitive advantage to be gained. But does a commitment to sustainability also require as much information sharing with competitors as possible, in order to maximise the overall social and environmental benefits? 

Barry believes there is a balance to be struck. While the over-arching aim may be improvement for the greater good, he says "being far-sighted and taking a lead" will deliver an initial individual benefit.

"Overall, environment and society must benefit and we must play a role in that, and in doing so we would seek to give ourselves a business advantage in the short term.

"We will always collaborate, we will always share best practice but there'll always be a bit of competition, to try to seek to lead the market as well," he says.

Indeed, the drive for companies to differentiate themselves through creative sustainability initiatives is in itself positive for the sustainability agenda as a whole.

But collaboration is also clearly vital, and Barry believes more will be needed going forward.

"We're all learning on this one together and ultimately there will have to be far more collaboration in the longer term. Some of it will be via existing trade associations but also new mechanisms, like the ETI, the Better Cotton Initiative, will emerge that will also help us.

"So there are number of avenues by which you can share best practice, work with others, learn yourself. Let's not be arrogant about this, we can always ways learn even if we are a relative leader today."

Once again, Barry plays down M&S's leadership in this area, and it is not hard to see why.

More than any company, M&S knows that being an icon is tough, that living up to such status is not easy. But M&S has already set a considerable pace in the sustainability stakes, and looks set to stay well ahead of the game.