Certification central to sustainability goals and sourcing strategy

Deep engagement with certification reduces future risks and plants the roots for Marks and Spencer's 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," says 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. Fiona Wheatley explains, "originally there had been an assumption that certification would form a strong component of the marketing of our company's sustainability strategy Plan A.

We have 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."

Outsourcing monitoring to the experts

"We use sustainability standards less often in consumer communications, but more as a business-to-business assurance system and to let expert stakeholders such as 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."

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.

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.

"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!" explains Fiona Wheatley.

She continues, "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.

Fiona Wheatley elaborates 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 Principles offered 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.

Fiona Wheatley explains 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 standardsetters on issues that are relevant for us. We try to make an active, intellectual contribution to the development of standards and certification systems."

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. Fiona Wheatley illuminates 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."

Fiona 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."

Originally published 2015