The greening of M&S

Stuart Rose, chief executive of Marks & Spencer, has gone green.

by Observer Woman
Last Updated: 23 Jul 2013

Rose, who in his three years as CEO has overseen the revival of the UK clothing and food chain, had an epiphany after reading a book by Al Gore last summer. He decided to take his 100 most senior staff in the £7 billion company to see Gore's documentary on global warming, An Inconvenient Truth. The response to the film was enthusiastic, leading to calls for action.

The result, four months later in February this year, was Plan A - a 100-point programme to make M&S the greenest retailer in the UK by 2012. Rose told the Observer that it was important that M&S was the first major corporation with a plan for across-the-board carbon emission reductions. Importantly, he believes this gives M&S a "competitive advantage".

A Plan A Tsar was appointed to oversee the process. Examples of the change include instructing cashiers in the womenswear department to ask customers of their clothes hangers: "Do you want me to recycle that for you?" Another change is to turn all the store lights out by 7pm.

Rose is a passionate proselytiser for Plan A, and it seems to have struck a chord with the British public. A Times survey found M&S to be the favourite supermarket among environmentally aware consumers, reflecting the way M&S - among only a handful of household name UK companies - is trusted not to simply use 'greenwash' to hoodwink consumers.

Rose explains that M&S will continue to offer customers the choice between, say, Fairtrade underwear and the cheaper, non-fair trade variety, because "at the end of the day, I'll be absolutely clear, we are running a commercial business". The same applies to locally produced peas and out-of-season peas flown in from abroad. The latter is labelled 'Flown' so consumers can measure their carbon footprint.

Rose insists government must play a "huge role" to achieve industry-wide energy efficiency, and that co-operation among retailers is essential to ensure consumers are not misinformed about what is genuinely green and what is not. Rose gives the example that growing vegetables out of season under plastic in the UK is more harmful than flying them in from Kenya.

To achieve Plan A, "you have to be a bit flat-earthist," says Rose, who admits that he still drives a BMW, because he needs to "get about". He agrees that Plan A is both morally right and potentially a marketer's dream but insists he is for real about the need to change business practice to reduce carbon emissions and tackle global warming. "Can you take the risk? Can you wait 50 years to find out? No."

Saint Stuart - the man who is turning M&S green

Polly Vernon
Observer Woman, April 2007

Review by Joe Gill

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