There’s news the other week that Marks & Spencer are set to start charging for carrier bags in their outlets and we at Hotcow find this rather interesting. It has, as most people know, been on the cards for sometime with trials having been in place at 50 stores (in N. Ireland and the South-East) since early last year. This is not the interesting part per se – no, we like the way the entire “project” has been announced and planned for several reasons.
There has been much made over the last year of Marks & Spencer’s packaging – the Local Government Association claims that M&S have the heaviest packaging in the supermarket sector and that only 60% of it is recyclable.
Marks Chief Executive, Sir Stuart Rose, has rather deftly defended these figures and gone on the offensive on two different fronts; firstly he has argued that packaging on food is there for two very good reasons (bio security and to keep it in excellent condition), he has then attacked the local authorities responsible for recycling stating that if they “could get their act together and all have the same organisational structure in terms of what you can recycle” then 90% of the company’s packing would be recyclable. So far so typical – and a textbook shifting of the blame.
Following on from this though is the announcement that Marks will start charging 5p per carrier bag next month and that the money will go to an environmental charity. This is the second angle of attack and it’s a pretty good one. Especially with the themes that are then developed around this central idea.
Rather than an entirely defensive action (though, as we have seen, there are aspects of that) Sir Stuart and his policy makers have chosen to bend with the wind – angling for several results.
Conceding that “the biggest usage of bags in our business, by a huge amount, is plastic bags in food”, he then goes on to state that, “we do need to reduce packaging. We are going to reduce packaging by 20% over the next three years, in foods, and then improve our ability to recycle it.”
Marks want to “make it easy for customers to do their bit to help the environment” with proceeds from the bag charge, “raising valuable funds to go to our partner charity, Groundwork, to invest in much-needed green spaces in our neighbourhoods.”
Furthermore, this is only part of a wider plan – that of sending no waste to landfill by 2012. This is, Sir Stuart admits, “an extraordinarily hard thing to achieve and we have to move downward in our terms of usage.”
Lots of lovely rhetoric and a bit of mea culpa for good measure, but what are the underlying effects of such a campaign? Well, this is where it gets clever.
Firstly, with this drive Marks are trying to shift the public perception of themselves as the supermarket of choice for the professional and upper classes – and all the negative connotations that come with that. This campaign attempts to place Marks into the friendly, green, responsible bracket – and thus make it more appealing to a wider cross-section of consumers.
Secondly, it puts pressure on the other supermarket giants to follow suit. Now, given that Marks has by no means the largest market share it should make things more difficult for the other leading stores. Whilst it may be conceivable for Marks to keep their promises and hit their targets by virtue of the size of their operation (and they’ve conceded it will be enormously difficult) other behemoths of the sector will find it nigh on impossible to hit similar targets. They’re likely just too big to send no waste to landfill for one. This, in turn, leaves them in an uncomfortable position – should they try and follow suit in the knowledge that they’ll probably fail or should they ignore the bait and risk being branded as environmentally unaware?
That this has come in a week where the front page news has been of turtles wrapped in carrier bags thousands of miles away and to a backdrop of growing public outcry only serves to make the issue much more immediate.
That this is fast becoming an emotive issue only plays into the hands of M&S who are now going to be perceived as donating money to charity with every bag sold when, in fact, it’s the customer who will be doing just that. It would be interesting to know just how much M&S pay for the bags in the first place…
Finally, the third thing this drive should be noted for is the partner of choice and what they intend to do – make “our” neighbourhoods greener. Marks are, once again, showing that they are an organisation who care and who want to help at a local level, upping their public perception and further increasing their customer-base.
All in all, a rather well-thought out offensive – we’re looking forward to seeing how the others react. One thing is for sure, this is only the opening salvo in a forthcoming supermarket war to establish the greenest, most responsible and ecologically aware. The winner stands to gain a great deal.