M&S chairman says consumers want responsible retailers

Robert Swannell, chairman of M&S.
Robert Swannell, chairman of M&S.
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THE CHAIRMAN of Marks & Spencer has reinforced the retailer’s commitment to sustainability, arguing that consumers are more concerned than ever before about the responsible sourcing of products.

Robert Swannell visited Leeds University yesterday to unveil a new sculpture celebrating the retailer’s partnership with the environmental charity Groundwork.

In an interview with The Yorkshire Post, he strongly denied that the group’s focus on sustainability is a distraction in a tough retail environment.

Mr Swannell said: “I think society is recognising that, whatever view you have on climate change or any of the other factors affecting us, that using the world’s resources sensibly is a sensible way of running a business.”

He added that consumers “have had more reasons to think about responsible sourcing than they ever have”.

“We haven’t made a big issue of it, but we were confident in our sourcing policies and the way we operated with our suppliers and that we were mercifully free of issues.”

Attention on retail supply chains has intensified following the Bangladesh clothing factory collapse that killed more than 1,100 people last year and the horsemeat scandal.

Mr Swannell said he wants M&S to be the world’s most sustainable retailer. “It is absolutely at the heart of everything we do in the business,” he added.

M&S launched Plan A in 2007 to work with customers and suppliers to combat climate change, reduce waste, use sustainable raw materials, trade ethically and help customers lead healthier lifestyles.

Mr Swannell said: “When times got hard in 2008 we didn’t take our foot off the pedal. On the contrary we felt it was more relevant than ever. In fact, we found that a good sustainable business is sound business sense as well.

“We are very clear that it also has a financial benefit for the business, whether it’s in less packaging or less heating and in many other things as well.”

Industry data showed last week that M&S had lost share in the fashion market over the last three months, piling pressure on chief executive Marc Bolland, who has presided over 10 straight quarters of declining underlying sales in the general merchandise division, which includes clothing.

Asked if the business is back on track, Mr Swannell said: “M&S is going through a large transformation in major parts of its operation.

“In the last year we have launched an entirely new website, which is a three-year project and probably the biggest of its kind in Europe.

“Logistics systems have been radically transformed and now most of our e-commerce is coming out of a million sq ft automated facility at Castle Donington so we are going through huge amounts of change.

He said the group’s strategy is very clear: to become an international multi-channel business. He added: “Online performance has been well above market over the past year and our international business is growing.”

M&S is scheduled to update on fourth quarter trading on April 10 and will publish annual results on May 20. City analysts are predicting that rival Next’s profits will have overtaken M&S for the first time in 2013.

Mr Swannell said he would leave the comparisons to others.

Asked if the City will give the board enough time, Mr Swannell said: “Our shareholders have been extremely stable over the last period of time.

“We have constant dialogue with them, we keep them informed of our plans and they have been very supportive.”