M&S must galvanise fashion industry

Marks & Spencer has boldly stated that it wants to “revolutionise clothes shopping” with the launch of its ‘Shwopping” initiative that aims to get customers to donate one unwanted item for every new item they buy. M&S is trying to reduce waste to landfill by changing consumer behaviour but to achieve this, the rest of the fashion industry must follow suit.


More than one billion items of clothing are thrown away every year and go to landfill. M&S hopes that it can collect one unwanted item for every new item it sells – that’s 350 million items of clothing every year.

If the retailer can do this it will have a huge impact on the amount of clothing waste that goes to landfill. The knock on effect is the potential uses for those old clothes that will either be resold by Oxfam, donated to markets where they are needed or turned into things like loft insulation if there isn’t any value in them as items of clothing.

What Bolland hopes to do though, is an even bigger task. He wants to change the way people shop and the way we think about consuming, while at the same time maintaining commercial objectives to increase sales and profits.

Earlier this week, Unilever, another business that has like M&S, overhauled its business to put sustainability at the heart of strategy, admitted that it was in changing consumer behaviours where it has made least progress in terms of becoming a more sustainable business.

It is an area that Unilever CMO Keith Weed calls “tricky”, which is probably an understatement.

We, as consumers, have ingrained behaviours that are difficult to change because we do them on autopilot. The difficult thing for marketers is to find the right triggers gently encourage change without consumers feeling that the new behaviour is an onerous task.

For Unilever, the majority of its impact on the environment comes from the consumer use of its products, so while it may be able to make great progress in the manufacture, product and supply chain of it s products, what will really make the difference is consumer behaviour.

This is likely to be broadly similar for M&S. If the ‘buy one, give one’ culture that M&S hopes to inspire takes off, then it will have successfully.

The initiative is similar in the behaviour change aspect to the issue of plastic bags for retailers.

In 2008 M&S introduced a 5p charge for plastic bags at its checkouts in an effort to change consumer behaviour and encourage shoppers to think about whether they actually need a bag for their shopping. And if they do, are they willing to pay a price for it?

The initiative resulted in an 80% reduction in plastic bag use at M&S and all the proceeds are donated to environmental charity projects. It is important to note though, that M&S was not alone in its efforts on plastic bag reduction. It was an industry wide effort and all the major supermarkets also took steps such as removing carrier bags from checkouts, encouraging use of ‘bags for life’ and bag reuse with loyalty points, and it became mainstream.

M&S’s efforts in clothing are industry leading and by expanding it to include clothing from all brands, not just its own, M&S is clearly stating that this isn’t something it can achieve alone.

Similarly, under its Sustainable Living Plan, Unilever recognises that to achieve its goals it must work alongside governments, NGOs and its competitors to achieve a more sustainable business model and make an impact on consumers.

To shift a complete consumer mindset and really change behaviours, the rest of the fashion industry must get involved in the efforts to reduce the amount of clothing waste sent to landfill.

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