The UK retailer sells mostly own label goods but has recently branched with some branded products. It launched a new phase in its Plan A sustainability strategy yesterday, building on the initial programme in place since 2007.
Amongst the commitments, the retailer has said it will use a balance performance-based scorecard, which includes social and environmental aspects and ‘lean’ manufacturing. The standards have been developed in cooperation with business partners, with which M&S has worked on pilot eco-factories to draw up best-practices.
The standards will be crucial for M&S’ food suppliers, since the retailer expects 25 per cent of its supply base to be achieving the highest performance by 2015. Similarly, all farmers that supply ingredients for use in M&S food will have to be on board with its Sustainable Agriculture Programme by 2015. (All 10,000 farmers who supply fresh meat, dairy, produce and flowers must be on the programme by 2012).
Individual food products will also have to bear at least one sustainable or ethical quality by 2020 (50 per cent by 2015).
Driving the trend?
The food sector has been casting about for ways to measure the sustainability of products for some time, but so far a comprehensive method has proved elusive. Although a number of schemes exist, such as carbon labelling and water use, these tend to look at just one aspect rather than the entire lifecycle of a product.
An EU-wide Sustainable Consumption and Production (SCP) roundtable, coordinated by the food manufacturers’ umbrella association the CIAA, was launched last year. One of its first tasks it to take an overview of existing methodologies, learn from them, and assess where gaps need to be plugged.
In the meantime, however, parts of the food industry are expecting retailers to increasingly play the part of coordinator. For instance, the bakery ingredients association Fedima has made sustainability carbon emissions a priority this year – a particularly challenging undertaking when baked goods contain a wide spectrum of ingredients from different origins.
It expects that if retailers each hand down their own manual on how to calculate the footprint, manufacturers will face the burden of having to work to multiple methodologies. Moreover, the findings between different methodologies could be inconsistent.
Simon Barnes, senior sustainability analyst at IGD, said it would be too strong to say retailers are playing a coordinating role over sustainability. Rather he said retailers occupy an important focal point in the food chain, between manufacturers and consumers, where many of the sustainability impacts lie.
“Retailers recognise that everyone is doing their bit,” he said, but added that there is a need for integrated and long-term perspective.
He said M&S is in a stronger position than most retailers as it already has integrated supply chains and therefore has a more intimate knowledge of suppliers.
"We are part way through the journey to understanding sustainability in the food chain,” Barnes said. “We have come a long way in the last four years”.
Finding common ground between retailers on sustainability requirements looks to be a tall order, however, according to Stefano Crea, global manager for food and beverages at risk assessor Det Norske Veritas.
He told FoodNavigator.com last month that while supermarkets have been important forces in coordinating food safety initiatives, food safety is seen as a pre-competitive area. This means they are prepared to cooperate for the good of the sector at large.
Sustainability, on the other hand, is an area of hot competition between them, so cooperation to come up with standard industry practices is unlikely.