Its strategy, dubbed Plan A, is widely regarded within the retail industry as an example of best practice and what other retailers could be doing to help the environment. It is the only major retailer to send zero waste to landfill, even when it constructs new stores and remains the only carbon neutral one as well.
It has helped 1,000 people into work through its Make Your Mark programme, recycled 4 million garments through the Schwopping scheme and half its products now have a social or environmental feature, such as Fairtrade food, clothing made in eco factories or homeware made using recycled materials.
Yet ask most consumers and they won’t know anything about this, beyond Schwopping and those lovely Joanna Lumley ads.
Now M&S says it wants to change that. Speaking at an event in London on Tuesday (20 May) to announce its results, chief executive Marc Bolland said it needed to “communicate better outwards” all the work it does and talk to customers about what they can be doing as well to “make a better world”.
However, he ruled out any high-profile marketing campaigns, saying it would be about the information it puts on labels and in-store, a “refresh” on what it is doing. That sounds like a missed opportunity.
Brands are increasingly talking about their sustainability and what they are doing to help society and the environment. Over the past few years the tide has turned and companies no longer feel like they will be accused of so-called “greenwashing”.
Take Procter & Gamble. It has changed the way it communicates sustainability by aligning it with innovation, talking about topics that make sense to customers like doing their washing at 30 degrees, rather than grand ideas about slowing melting of the polar ice caps.
Unilever is doing similar, using its first ever brand campaign to back Project Sunlight, its sustainability initiative.
Retailers are also getting in on the action. H&M recently ran its first print ads promoting its clothes recycling scheme and Ikea launched its first marketing on sustainability.
M&S should not be afraid of joining them. Its sustainability initiatives are one of the things that set it out from other retailers. The success of the Shwopping campaign should be proof of the positive impact a large-scale campaign can have.
Plus consumers what to know about this. In the Reputation Institute’s recent study into the brands with the best reputation, CSR was found to be increasingly important, making up 44.3 per cent of a company’s reputation, up from 43.6 per cent a year ago. Brand purpose is important as the economic recovery takes hold.
Just sticking some information on a label isn’t going to inform enough people and in-store communications will only be useful for people that are already shopping with the brand. M&S should be using its success here to attract more consumers interested in what a brand stands for and its position on the environment and its role in society.
Bolland said M&S wants to be an “international multichannel retailer of substance”. The substance is the sustainability. It shouldn’t be ruling out marketing campaigns, it should be making them its first port of call.