Marks & Spencer (M&S) is three years into Plan A, a commitment to change 100 things over five years, while aiming to become the world’s most sustainable retailer by 2015. So how’s the track record looking for M&S on its packaging front?

Its commitment to build Plan A into every one of the 2.7 billion individual products bought from M&S each year appears a massive undertaking. But in transforming its packaging systems and processes, the retailer has revisited simplicity, and in doing so has broken with industry norms. M&S acknowledges that its goal puts down a bold marker that demonstrates its commitment while driving the search for innovative solutions to environmental challenges.

Earlier this year M&S joined other retailers in signing up to Courtauld Commitment 2. This follows the original Courtauld Commitment, a voluntary agreement between major UK supermarkets and the Waste and Resources Action Programme, a non-governmental organisation that targets improvements in resource efficiency and which aims to achieve the more sustainable use of resources over the entire lifecycle of products throughout the whole supply chain. While still keeping goods safe and protected, and packaging appealing, Courtauld Commitment 2 seeks to impact less on the environment and increase transportation efficiency.

Less packaging is smarter

"By 2012 our aim is that all of our retail packaging will come from green-rated, certified recyclable sources."

While still keeping goods safe and protected, and packaging appealing, Courtauld Commitment 2 seeks to impact less on the environment and increase transportation efficiency. For example, most of the furniture market favours a part-corrugated and EPS packaging solution. Unfortunately, the EPS, in the main, ends up in landfill.

M&S is planning to deliver its furniture in sustainable corrugated packaging solutions, as opposed to EPS packaging used by the majority of its competitors. M&S’s approach means that more than 8t of waste that would have gone to landfill has been eradicated. In volume terms, that’s enough polystyrene to fill six 40ft articulated lorries.

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This an ethical approach because plastics are reckoned to take up to 500 years to decompose and are made mostly from non-renewable oil sources.

Benefits of green packaging

As M&S pushes for environmentally friendly packaging, the approach is reaping benefits in:

  • efficiencies across packaging and operations
  • environmental reduction with greener solutions that cost less
  • improved control of packaging design and quality for local and overseas production
  • enhanced perception from consumers
  • accurate measurement of packaging materials and waste
  • increased speed to market
  • incremental sales and profit.

Marks & Spencer packaging technical manager Gordon Henman notes that Plan A’s targets were initially based around retail packaging.

"M&S plans to deliver its furniture in sustainable corrugated packaging solutions."

"When we launched version one of Plan A, it was all about a 25% reduction in those areas, and they were our targets from 2007-12," he says. "We’ve already exceeded that; we’re on about 35% now. But we’re aware that we only use about a third as much retail packaging as we do transit packaging, so we introduced a separate target of reducing transit packaging by around 25%. That was the reason for engagement with The Less Packaging Company. It is our consultant and outsourced technical resource, providing design and technical functions and experience. It works with our internal departments and suppliers to help us deliver the new Plan A target.

"Furniture packaging falls into a separate area. It’s almost home delivery packaging, and has its own target of a 30% reduction. It’s a stand-alone project concerned with freight efficiency and setting ourselves up for our new automated warehouses, and ensuring everything is compliant."

Pre-cycling considerations

As well as environmental issues, The Less Packaging Company factors in wide-ranging considerations for optimising M&S’s packaging. Vital elements include the form of retail channel, the brand and its consumers, new product development and the RoI, among many others. Together, the companies are about to roll out an online packaging portal and website to assist suppliers with Plan A compliance:

  • a packaging style guide is uploaded to the system
  • the supplier searches and downloads the style and information
  • the supplier or its packaging manufacturer can then adapt the style to suite specific product dimensions
  • the supplier performance tests pack sample, then completes data form and uploads spec for approval
  • the Less Packaging Company approves spec for style, material and freight use
  • an approval e-alert is sent to the retailer, supplier and artworker
  • cost-saving analysis is fed back to M&S.
"The Less Packaging Company worked with M&S on an end-to-end packaging project."

"The majority of our suppliers are based in the Far East, Indian sub-continent, Turkey and the Middle East," Henman says. "All of our suppliers will have access to the portal, as well as their packaging suppliers and internal departments, too. It’s all password protected and category specific."

The Less Packaging Company also worked with M&S on an end-to-end packaging project, moving an underpants range out of bags and switching to cardboard waterfall packs. The result of the project was a successful move to a fully recyclable retail pack, and a reduction in container usage of almost five 40ft containers per annum.

M&S’s green motivation

While M&S has won awards, such as the UK Packaging Awards 2008 and the Greener Packaging Awards 2009, trophies are not its motivator.

"By 2012 our aim is that all of our retail packaging will come from green-rated, certified recyclable sources, working with partners with a carbon-positive history," says Henman.

With M&S’s packaging well on course to meet its Plan A commitments, it’s not just a cliché: less really does mean more.