Are Standards Standard Enough?

Are Standards Standard Enough?

How Marks & Spencer handles challenges and opportunities in ensuring good quality and sustainably sourced products
Are Standards Standard Enough?
Fiona Wheatley

Sustainable Development Manager, Marks and Spencer

Environmental and Social Standards Specialist, Advisory Services, IFC

How does Marks and Spencer work to ensure quality, safety, environmental and social standards for each of its products?

The breadth of product range and the complexity of retail supply chains make it difficult for retail companies like ours to participate in every standards initiative. However, M&S has extensively collaborated with a range of standards organizations. Examples include M&S membership of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) Board of Governors to call for more demanding principles and criteria on deforestation and peat land conversion, as well as M&S field trials in the UK, Kenya and South Africa to support the development of the Water Stewardship Standard.

How do sustainability standards help or hinder business competitiveness? 

Standards can prevent a proliferation of different interpretations of what ‘sustainability’ entails. There has been a tendency to assume we will all adopt the lowest cost standard. However, there is little evidence to support this and in fact in the UK and European market early adopters have consistently selected the most demanding standards. Also, where there is more than one standard, as in timber (e.g., PEFC and FSC), there can be healthy ‘competitive’ pressure towards higher standards and harmonization.

What does a good standard look like?

In order for standards to have business support, they have to be credible, relevant, practical and economically viable.

©Marks & Spencer

Credit: Marks & Spencer

Standards or certification…which is best?

The work in Kenya and South Africa was originally conceived as a certification scheme. However, what the field trials showed was that the primary value of a standard is the creation of a framework for engagement and cooperation. As a result, the development of supplier business models is increasingly focused on participation and capacity development, geared towards collective action. This may lead companies to seek certification, but certification is no longer the central feature, nor a prerequisite.

How have your efforts around standards affected company profits and growth? 

Improving efficiency and productivity is a fundamental benefit of participating in sustainability standards.  Helping our suppliers run their businesses more profitably while also being good environmental and social custodians is a core objective of M&S Plan A (our sustainability plan). This in turn makes a positive contribution to M&S sourcing resilience.

Which is the biggest obstacle to improving standards? 

There is an ongoing tension between the perceived need for all-encompassing standards versus the desire to improve the lives of the broadest spectrum of producers, particularly very small scale producers. More effort is needed to create the enabling environment for widespread adoption of standards and also to build producer capacity to collaborate and engage in improvement programs. We must continue to seek ways to motivate and reward participation in and commitment to standards, despite the fact that some producers may not yet be ‘sustainable’ producers.

How does M&S navigate the many standards that are out there?

The M&S product range touches on almost every region of the world and the company is supplied directly and indirectly by a vast network of producers of many shapes, sizes and scales.  In deciding which type of standard to use, we will consider the extent of our influence, our knowledge of the issues involved, and whether there is a desire for market differentiation or across-the-board improvement.

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