BECOMING carbon neutral is big business. Microsoft, Barclays and British Airways are among the big-name brands vying to achieve the much sought-after eco-friendly tag.
Yesterday one of Britain’s biggest chains, Marks and Spencer, announced the results of its Plan A sustainability project, claiming that after a five-year eco-drive, its network of stores is carbon neutral and that M&S is the first major retailer to manage such a feat.
The firm recycles 100% of its waste and sends nothing to landfill while its stores, offices, warehouses and delivery fleets in the UK and Ireland have all been certified as carbon neutral.
But the journey has not been without its hiccups as the store failed to make 12 of its commitments. Interestingly, it reported a decline of organic food sales since 2007.
While some research carried out in 2010 suggested four out of five people were still buying green despite the recession, research carried out by recycle.co.uk this month revealed UK shoppers are no longer likely to pay more for green, organic or sustainable products.
Almost 20% said they just wanted the cheapest product and the number of people willing to pay premium prices for eco-friendly products had declined by 6% since 2007.
And it seems that shoppers are not the only problem.
M&S also failed to convert a planned 20 million clothing garments to Fairtrade cotton because of difficulties with the supply chain. It has also been unable to convert all fresh turkey, geese, pork and duck to free range while responding to customer demand to stock higher-welfare products.
It seems the path to becoming a sustainable retail operation is not a smooth one and if a sophisticated, well-run major retail chain is struggling, what chance do smaller businesses have?
Dr Joanna Berry, director of engagement at Newcastle University Business School, said M&S and other big businesses can make life easier for other smaller businesses by creating demand.
She said: “It is incredibly laudable that M&S are trying Plan A. The more businesses want to do better but can’t, the more availability there will be.
“So, if M&S is trying and doesn’t make it or if Morrisons doesn’t or Tesco doesn’t, then someone will create a supply for this enormous demand and, one would hope, this will create more opportunities for others.”
Dr Berry added the North East was emerging as a centre for eco-firms.
She said: “I think the North East is doing extremely well. It is perhaps because we are historically reliant on the public sector and that is very different now, we are starting to realise that the sustainable agenda is important.
“We also relied on coal for many generations and now that has changed and we need a replacement for that.”
Twanna Doherty is head of buying for Gateshead-based Spark Etail, which owns eco-friendly retail businesses Ethical Superstore, Natural Collection, Spirit of Nature and Bio-D.
She said the region’s shoppers have not lost their appetite to buy green but called on retailers to be ambitious.
“We hear too much in the news about the austerity and how the economy is doing,” she said.
“People are certainly re-evaluating their spending but they are not re-evaluating their values.
“Values remain strong for those people who believe in ethical trade – it becomes a part of them.”
Spark Etail has more than 5,000 fair trade, organic and eco-friendly products and has been operating nationally from its North East base for around seven years.
Twanna commended Marks and Spencer for its approach and said all North East businesses could learn lessons.
“I think it is about taking the first step, doing a bit of homework and see what being eco-friendly could do first of all for their staff and also for their customers.
“I think really for most companies it has to factor on their agenda, they have to be asking themselves basic questions about their impact on the environment. My advice mainly would be to start small but be ambitious.
“We could not have asked for a better place to position ourselves than here in the North East,” she said.
“The region, and the North generally, gets hit harder than most when it comes to the economy but we have a strong customer base here in the North East.”
Spark Etail combines fair trade international sources with locally-produced and independent outlets.
But for M&S one of the biggest difficulties has been the availability of eco-friendly or sustainable products which meet the correct standards.
The retailer failed to source 100% of its wood from Forest Stewardship Council sources by 2012.
It was only able to achieve 84% of this target due to a lack of availability of sustainably-sourced wood and it also missed its target to reduce water usage by 20% by 2012.
It has now had to reevaluate that target and has said it aims to make a reduction of 25% by 2015.
Meanwhile, a plan by the retailer to introduce biodiesel has been shelved due to concerns over the sustainability of crops used to make the alternative fuel.
Other grand designs to increase organic food sales and to convert all fresh turkey, geese, pork and duck products to free range will also be unmet in the short term.
M&S chief executive Marc Bolland remains upbeat about the company’s targets.
Future plans will include Shwopping – an initiative which will see customers swap old M&S clothes.
Mr Bolland said: “I am proud of what we’ve achieved. We now have a better, greener and more ethical Marks & Spencer.
“Moving forward we will continue to engage customers in sustainable consumption, as we have with our Shopping initiative, the first cradle to cradle clothes retailing business model.
“We remain as committed to Plan A as we have ever been. It is an essential part of our DNA and fundamental to our plans to become an international, multi-channel retailer.”
People are re-evaluating their spending but they are not re-evaluating their values