M&S on how SMEs can turn sustainability into a success

As new research shows SMEs struggle to implement sustainability into their business strategy, M&S’ sustainability manager Jo Daniels explains how businesses can do so successfully.

Achieving success in sustainability can’t be built around standalone campaigns but must be based on integrating it into the very core of a business, according to retail giant Marks & Spencer.

New research by creative agency 18 Feet and Rising finds that while 88% of small- and medium-sized businesses value sustainability, 70% struggle to implement it into their business.

Having surveyed 100 CEOs at UK-based SMEs, the study shows 40% believe sustainable practices are too costly to implement, with a further 42% believing the government doesn’t currently do enough to encourage sustainable business practices.

And speaking to Marketing Week, Jo Daniels, sustainability manager for Marks & Spencer, says this “struggle” is occurring because SMEs are not showing enough leadership.

“Implementing sustainability requires leadership. It requires companies to understand its key priorities, its customers’ expectations and how delivering on those will create value for the business, particularly with customers,” she explains.

“From a brand perspective, this can be hard to quantify and short-term demands can hinder a long-term approach to building a brand, so this may be why some SMEs struggle.”

READ MORE: Brands struggle to sustain ‘purpose’ commitments

Even if 70% struggle to implement sustainability into their business, the research shows there is plenty of intent to become more purpose-led. Over the next five years, 80% of the CEOs surveyed want to introduce more ethical practices as a means of boosting their business.

Nearly half (43%) believe having a clear CSR message will attract customers who want to support ‘good’ businesses. Additionally, a quarter (26%) said such practices would help attract and retain staff who want to work for a company that “does the right thing”.

So how can SMEs turn this intent into a reality? Daniels, who has worked on the branding for M&S’s sustainable Plan A initiative, advises: “Don’t have standalone ethical campaigns, but build those values into your company’s brand architecture so that it runs through everything you do. Our own insight tells us that our customers expect M&S to do the right thing, therefore it’s our task to do that in a way that resonates with our customers.”

She cites Heineken’s #OpenYourWorld campaign and Ben & Jerry’s long-term commitment to social purpose as great examples of how to get it right. And adds that despite the squeeze on household budgets, she expects values to still be important to consumers.

“The reality is that implementing sustainability-related activities can save your business money. Using less energy, more efficient logistics and more innovative packaging has made M&S a more efficient business and has saved us significant amounts,” she concludes.

“In a context where the UK’s household budgets will continue to be squeezed, people will still be looking for value in their purchases, but with values. Therefore social purpose will continue to be important in 2018 so long as it’s being delivered with authenticity and impact.”