Deep engagement with certification reduces risks, plants roots for Marks and Spencer

In this new interview with Marks and Spencer, we discover why the major retailer continues to partner with standards and certification programmes to reduce risks, and plant the roots for the company’s own ‘sustainability heritage.’

When Marks and Spencer first became involved with sustainability standards and certification in 2007, the idea was to achieve positive impact on the ground in a range of difficult sustainability issues by specifying certified products or material.  “The benefit of using a multi-stakeholder approach was that M&S could rely on external experts closer to the ground, and certification was a way to communicate our ambition and achievements in a simple way.  It was perhaps what one would call the ‘early mover’ advantage of sourcing certified,” said Fiona Wheatley, Plan A Sustainable Development Manager at M&S.

Business-to-business assurance

M&S remained committed to certification and even increased their commitments, even while increased sales for certified products rarely set the market alight.  Wheatley explained, “originally there had been an assumption that certification would form a strong component of the marketing of Plan A.  We had since learned that customers find it difficult to give preference to certified products. Their buying experience is too complex, and there are too many factors in their purchasing decisions, with sustainability often being relegated behind other core attributes like price, quality or design.   There is little doubt that customers appreciate the efforts made by M&S to source sustainably, but they expect this for every product we sell.  Nonetheless we have not changed our support of certification and we are now sourcing an even greater amount of certified product and material than in the past.  We use sustainability standards less often in consumer communications, but more as a business-to-business assurance system and to let expert stakeholders like academics, NGOs and responsible investors know that we are delivering on our commitments.  Credible standards and certification give us confidence that our supply chains are being managed in socially and environmentally responsible ways.”

Outsourcing monitoring to the experts

M&S, like other large retailers, deals with a huge range of materials and products.  So the difficulties faced in understanding and improving the production and manufacturing conditions of supply chains can be deep and far-ranging.  M&S is using certification as a tool for managing the full range of issues, particularly in commodity crops where environmental and social sustainability can be complex and where the producer can be many links down the value chain from the M&S supplier.  “The issues for us have not changed: environmental degradation, human rights and climate change – issues which occur in a whole range of materials.  You could close your eyes and it would be hard to think about something that doesn’t impact M&S!” explained Wheatley.  She continued, “It is difficult for a retailer to have expertise on every issue, whether it’s marine ecosystems and depletion of fish stocks, or deforestation, or the economic development of small holders in agriculture, and many many more.”  Instead, M&S has used certification and its experts to manage and monitor the issues at hand.  “The heart of what certification offers to M&S is the ability of our business to develop partnerships on standard-setting, validation and monitoring.  Certification helps us address these problems and its systems give us assurance of compliance to the highest standards.”

Simplifying what is asked of suppliers

While recent discussions in the media about certification have focused on the costs and complexities of audits, there is also another story that points to certification’s potential to provide simplicity.  Wheatley elaborated on this concept: “Certification and standards simplify what we ask of our suppliers.  If all of the retailers came up with their own standard for, say,  sustainable forestry, and then asked suppliers to comply with these, it would create chaos and confusion.  There would be a large amount of fragmentation.  Credible standards and certification schemes provide a reference point for what ‘good’ looks like in a commodity or sector.  So, in a way, and from the supplier perspective, certification saves a lot of money and drives simplification.  It allows us to address and monitor issues in a systematic way.”

Credibility with NGOs 

Credibility has been one of the hallmarks of ISEAL membership for standard-setters and the ISEAL Credibility Principlesoffered the first global agreement on what makes a standards system credible.  But do relationships with certification schemes bring credibility to companies as well?  While in the past, early adopters of certification may have felt that sustainability labels could differentiate their company to consumers, M&S has found a different credibility offering from its relationship with certification.  Wheatley explaine that “credibility comes to M&S from our work with standard-setters but this is more about our credibility with the standard-setting community and with the NGOs that support certification.  A lot of this is because we do more than just specify certified products.  We engage with a range of standard-setters on issues that are relevant for us.  We try to make an active, intellectual contribution to the development of standards and certification systems.”

Standard-setters have benefited from their relationship with M&S as well.  Karin Kreider, Executive Director of ISEAL, explained, “Company partners like M&S help our members understand the business world so we can all improve our offering along the value chain.  M&S comprehends the benefits of certification at a deeper level than many other companies. In the case of the ISEAL Alliance, they help us drive the message to our members that certification needs to be as progressive and dynamic as business, so that we develop innovations at a pace that will meet changing market needs.”

Building the case for the future

M&S is pioneering in its deep engagement with certification. Whether being on an expert panel, or sitting in key roundtables and steering committees, it has found that a proactive approach to certification allows the company to weather obstacles and plan its sustainability story into the future.  Wheatley illuminated this: “We think about the risks to our sourcing strategy and brand reputation in 10, 20 years, and how we can have less risk in the future.  We also want to have a story to tell about the many years we have been doing this.  Therefore, the steps we have taken to engage with and even to build certification systems, and to support improvements on the ground, are all part of developing an M&S heritage.  To other business leaders I would say don’t use certification reactively.  For example, perhaps you use soy and there comes a media campaign on environmental issues in soy.  Unless you have already been involved in understanding and addressing key issues, such as the obstacles to supply or the limitations of the certification scheme, you will not be able to react adequately or quickly enough.”

Wheatley offered a final word to fellow company leaders about the depth of involvement required: “It’s not only about the products you offer your customers, but also about the products you use in running your business – your packaging, your marketing, your construction.  It’s about end-to-end coverage.  It’s about having this as part of the very DNA of your business.”

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Learn more about the business case for certification at our Conference

Hear Fiona Wheatley speak on 21 May at the Global Sustainability Standards Conference in a session on the business case for certification.  Fiona will be joined by fellow speakers from HSBC, Responsible Jewellery Council, and the Global Sustainable Tourism Council.  Registration is now open and the evolving speakers and programme can be found here.

About Fiona Wheatley: 

Fiona has worked for Marks and Spencer since 2011.  Fiona believes that only through collaboration can we find solutions to the complex and deep seated challenges affecting society and the environment, and this philosophy underpins her approach in introducing industry leading sustainability policies for seafood, timber, palm oil and soy.  She leads policy development within the Consumer Goods Forum as well as M&S and participates in various Advisory Groups on sustainable commodities.  Fiona co-ordinates the M&S / WWF partnership programmes on cotton, water, fish and sustainable consumption and leads M&S Plan A strategy on natural resources.

About M&S Plan A

Plan A is M&S strategy to help protect he planet – by sourcing responsibly, reducing waste and helping communities.  M&S launched Plan A in January 2007, setting out 100 commitments to achieve in 5 years. They have now introduced Plan A 2020 which consists of 100 new, revised and existing commitments, with the ultimate goal of becoming the world’s most sustainable major retailer.

Published on ISEAL website 27/03/2015: http://www.isealalliance.org/online-community/blogs/deep-engagement-with-certification-reduces-risks-plants-roots-for-marks-and-spencer

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