Sustainable Products: Consumer choice or industry’s responsibility?

For most consumers palm oil is an abstract issue – despite it being in 50% of everyday groceries. But what impact does the RSPO trademark really have on consumer sentiment? Fiona Wheatley, Sustainable Development Manager at Marks & Spencer gives a retailer’s perspective. 

M&S want assurance that the major challenges associated with palm oil production are being robustly addressed. At the moment, the RSPO standard provides this assurance, it is the most credible certification in the market, but it still needs to do more, for example tackling the issues of high carbon stock forest destruction and peatland conversion.  This is because when the standard was developed we didn’t understand the enormous impact deforestation was having on climate change.  M&S is participating in many of the forums tasked with solving these challenges and we are doing everything we can to deliver a better future for palm oil production.  We’re really encouraged by the collective effort we see going into finding ways to protect forests and communities.  It is obvious that the majority of participants see the bigger picture of what can be achieved through bringing a broad range of perspectives to the table and the value of open discussion and debate.

Palm oil has a unique productivity advantage over other vegetable oils with palm oil yield up to ten times more than that of its nearest comparable vegetable oil. That’s quite compelling. If we don’t use palm oil, where are we going to find the equivalent land to plant alternative crops like sunflower, rapeseed or soya?  But we cannot keep losing pristine tropical forests to palm oil.  We can meet growing global demand for palm oil through limiting conversion to lower value land (generally called degraded land) and helping smallholders learn how to get more oil from the same land area.

We must not underestimate the immense role played by smallholders as palm oil producers. Something like two thirds of palm oil production comes from smallholders, and there are relatively few other income-generating opportunities for families and communities in these regions. Our solutions must recognise the need to support these growers at the same time as setting clear boundaries to stop unacceptable practices.

However, alongside those smallholders who see palm oil as a route to a better lifestyle are communities who do not want oil palm plantations on their traditional lands.  We must make sure that communities resistant to seeing their land converted to palm oil plantations are given a voice, and are supported equally in their aspirations. It has to come down to their choice.

There are reasons why M&S has invested so heavily in trying to find solutions to the complex problems associated with palm oil, and that’s because we believe it has genuine benefits from a wider sustainability perspective. We believe that it offers a pathway from poverty for many thousands if not millions of people in key producing countries and regions in a way that very few other crops do.

But given all these advantages, and the great progress M&S has made in achieving over 90% RSPO coverage, why don’t we use the RSPO eco-label to tell customers which products contain sustainable palm oil?

There are very good reasons why we don’t use RSPO (or other eco-labels), even though the product or ingredient may be certified.  For instance, M&S has chosen not to use the RSPO logo in general because for the vast majority of our products, the proportion of palm oil in the product is exceptionally low. It would actually feel like greenwashing to make a sustainability claim for an ingredient that’s not a substantial part of the product.

Palm oil is in such a broad range of products that few consumers are willing to indulge the time it takes to check every product to check its credentials.  And if we extend this to talking about the many different issues M&S manages on behalf of our customers – from water to animal welfare to labour standards and many more, the shopping experience starts to get awful complicated.

If we’re really honest, general feedback is that people want us to prioritise information on issues other than palm oil – the key ones being nutrition, provenance and packaging recycling. These are their top priorities in terms of broader sustainability. That’s not to say that a lot of customers aren’t interested in palm oil. It’s just that they’re not going to attend to it with a level of detail that means they will choose a product containing sustainable palm oil over a product that doesn’t.

Consumers, quite frankly, expect us to make sensible sustainability decisions on their behalf. They expect us to be the experts so they can select every product with a clean conscience.  These are issues that we, as companies, have to fix. That’s why partnerships are so important, with suppliers, governments, campaigners and technical experts.  We have to work to achieve this with all the products we sell, and all the ingredients that we use. But I would never talk about sustainability as a destination. Sustainability is a continual improvement process, and making sure that as we learn more about our impacts – through research and data and expert advice – we respond and get better at minimising our impact on the environment.

My big message to customers: look at the brands you buy and what that brand is doing. It won’t take you long, if you look online, to find out what their commitment to palm oil is and how well they’ve made progress against that commitment. That’s what differentiates those that are trying really hard and those who aren’t.

Marine litter, everyone’s problem no-one’s responsibility

Marine litter is a problem that few would deny needs attention.  It’s not only unpleasant to see beaches covered in debris, but it’s damaging to land, air and marine species alike.  In the last 20 years beach litter levels have increased by 135% and plastic litter by 180%.  The issues are well documented so there is no need to go into details.  The need for change is indisputable.  The challenge is figuring out what needs to be done and by who, and making it happen. Waste infographic
To start to tackle any problem we must first understand the cause by identifying where good data  exists and where further research needs to be done.  We must separate fact from fiction and focus on solutions that work in practice.
This was the aim of the Marine Litter Action Network (MLAN). MLAN was established to bring together people and organisations from different sectors to tackle the issue of marine litter.  It was recognised that to could not rely on single organisations or approaches.  We could see that more could be achieved by bringing together not only knowledge and expertise, but also energy and enthusiasm.
The Marine Conservation Society provided resource and funding to facilitate this programme and a Steering Group was formed.  A launch event was held in Birmingham in June 2014 and ‘the year to make a difference’ had begun!
But before I describe the achievements of MLAN, I know that readers will want to know what M&S is doing to prevent marine litter.  You might be surprised at the breadth of our approach.
One of our early contributions was to stop offering free carrier bags in our food halls.  Since 2008 M&S has charged for carrier bags with the profits from these bags being reinvested into our Forever Fish Fund.  This money was allocated to the Marine Conservation Society and WWF to invest in a broad range of programmes, from educating schoolchildren about the value of our marine environment, to running marine conservation projects in the UK and abroad, and the project customers will be most familiar with – our annual Big Beach Clean-Up Initiative
Beach clean has engaged thousands of M&S colleagues, customers and members of the public in tackling hands-on the problem of litter.  We’re just beginning to get the results back from this year’s beach clean: 6,300 people participated and (so far) their collections have amounted to 4,000 bags of waste weighing 39,000 kg, and 80,000 items including cans, wrappers, bottles, cassette tapes and a moped!  But although it’s great to end up with cleaner beaches, the really valuable outcome is the opportunity to analyse what is found.  This data helps MCS understand more about litter and how it ends up on our beaches, and that helps tell them where we are succeeding and where more needs to be done.
We’ve looked at what we can do in our own business too.  We’ve made our products and packaging as recyclable as possible through simplifying the number of plastics that are used.  We focussed on reducing our reliance on plastic and now use 25% less plastic packaging and 70% fewer carrier bags than we did in 2008.  And we’ve created new markets for recycling through initiatives like our Somerset recycling project.
But some marine waste comes directly from the fishing industry, old bait boxes, nets, etc. M&S has included guidelines on fishing gear disposal in our vessel guidelines and supported work done by Seafish to promote best practice guidelines through their Responsible Fishing Scheme. Seafish also include responsible waste management in their new entrant fishermen training courses, a major step forward in raising awareness and promoting good husbandry on vessels.
One topic which we’ve learned a lot about recently has been the impact of the microbeads used in cosmetics. M&S committed to removing these from our products by the end of 2015 and we’re delighted to report that six months ahead of schedule we’ve reformulated all our products and M&S Beauty products are no longer made using microplastics.
But despite all these efforts we know more radical change is needed so we’re working with others to explore how to develop a more circular economy – investing in technologies and design to radically reduce our reliance on virgin materials. I don’t have space to go into detail about this here but you can read more about it here. And of course we support initiatives that seek to promote innovative approaches like the Frisbee made from litter gathered on M&S Beach Clean.
So all this brings me back to the Marine Litter Action Network ‘Year to Make a Difference’. The programme brought together a diverse range of focus groups looking at developing technical, behaviour and infrastructure solutions.  For example how to get the public to stop ‘flushing the unflushables’ (like cotton buds and wet wipes) or promoting personal responsibilities for litter and behaviour change on beaches and on land.  Engaging with the commercial and recreational fishing fleets on gear management and getting commercial shipping to do more to prevent spillages (five million pieces of Lego were lost from a single container off Land’s End in 1997).  And of course,  encouraging companies to follow M&S example and remove microplastics from their products!
There is much more to be done to turn the tide on litter.  But by demonstrating the full impact on marine life and communities we will see others joining this movement for change.  I look forward to a future of healthy seas and clean beaches.
World Oceans Day 2015