Carmel McQuaid on making sustainability “the business that we do” at Marks and Spencer

At the 6heads Innovation and Sustainability Forum back in November, Carmel McQuaid from Marks and Spencer shared her experiences of innovating for sustainability within Marks and Spencer. She gave a frank and honest discussion around the challenges of making sustainability “the business that we do”, and shared her golden tips for getting things done within a commercial retail environment.

Carmel identified the following challenges:

  •  “Turkey’s don’t vote for Christmas”: Getting internal engagement with sustainability can be difficult if the issue of sustainable consumption challenges the very nature of traditional business roles. For example, a fashion designer is unlikely to feel motivated by sustainability if you ask them to dramatically reduce the number of new clothes that they design.
  • “The devil’s in the detail”: Sometimes having the innovative idea is the easy thing.  Turning ideas into a reality is what actually matters, and that is where a lot of creative/outside the box thinking is required.  For example, putting doors on fridges in stores can mean considerable additional time is required to restock the fridge each day, and may also result in reduced sales for refrigerated items. So – how can you find a way to achieve the output (saving energy on fridges), in a way that delights customers?
  •  “It’s not my job”: Businesses have evolved to work in specialist functional silos. So it can be difficult to champion initiatives that require whole life cycle thinking. For example, Fit Out teams are responsible for the capital cost of equipment in stores; Operational teams for the ongoing cost of energy usage.  The ecosystem of the organisation can often be stacked against getting sustainability initiatives implemented in practice.
  • “Meanwhile the world has changed”: Innovations can take time to develop, and meanwhile the world can move on, rendering the idea irrelevant. So you need to be innovating for a future world rather than finding solutions that rely on the current business world.
  • “You can’t do it all alone”: Retail businesses in particular are fast paced, often working to very tight timescales. Collaboration with competitors, governments and NGOs is required to achieve the systemic change that sustainability needs, and this will take considerably longer to achieve.

Carmel’s golden tips are:

  • “Build confidence along the sustainability journey”: Internal confidence in sustainability is absolutely necessary, but can take time to develop. For example, the M&S Oxfam Clothes Exchange has evolved over time from customers returning clothes to Oxfam, to M&S now hosting One Day Wardrobe clearouts in M&S stores at the start of each new fashion season.
  • “Ask the right questions”: When trying to innovate around a particular problem or product, we as sustainability professionals can sometimes constrain people (and indeed ourselves) by asking questions that are too precise. For example, by asking shampoo technologists to design a more sustainable shampoo, we are likely to end up with a similar looking shampoo bottle that is marginally more sustainable than its predecessor. However, if we were to ask them to design something to clean hair, we may end up with a hairbrush-like device that achieves the same outcome, but with a step change in its environmental performance. Asking the right question may result in a breakthrough solution.
  • “Sometimes imperfection is ok”:  As sustainability professionals, we can sometimes get so caught up in delivering the perfect solution, and criticise the attempts of others to create a solution because it fails to address every related issue. In so doing, we can alienate and de-motivate those around us. However, a seemingly imperfect solution can still be very effective. For example, although the carbon-neutral lingerie range recently introduced by M&S is by no means a truly sustainable clothing item, it has generated much energy within commercial parts of the business for sustainability-related innovations, and has raised the internal profile of the agenda considerably.
  • “Creativity around the implementation of ideas is just as important as creativity around the ideas themselves”: Just like the fridge doors, even good ideas can stall if the detail of their implementation has not been properly addressed. Creative thinking is required to overcome barriers to implementation.
  • “Solutions are out there”. They are also achievable: This winter, Marks and Spencer launched a beautiful Autograph coat that is made almost entirely from cashmere sweaters that had been returned to M&S stores. As well as helping to reduce the impacts of overgrazing on the habitat of the cashmere goat, this closed-loop coat also makes commercial sense. Proof that when you get things right, the rewards can be great.

One response to “Carmel McQuaid on making sustainability “the business that we do” at Marks and Spencer

  1. Pingback: Three retail stories that speak to me | Throughline·

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