Marks and Spencer has for a long time been dedicated to making a difference with its ‘Plan A’ vision for a sustainable future. Through this programme, first launched over 10 years ago in 2007, they strive to be a business that has a positive impact on wellbeing, communities and the planet. The program focuses on social and environmental issues and ensuring that by 2025 they are a circular business, generating zero waste – a bold goal that involves all their operations, supply chains and customers.
Since 2012, M&S have been zero-waste-to-landfill across their owned operations in the UK and Republic of Ireland and have made the prevention of food waste a priority. They were the first major retailer to provide live updates via the Neighbourly website on the number of tonnes of surplus food redistributed, and the first to manage a nationwide redistribution scheme through a single platform.
This type of thinking isn’t new to M&S. They’ve always been an innovator and leader in their food operations – pioneering boil-in-the-bag and sachet meals in 1972, then creating Britain’s first chilled instant meal, the much-loved chicken Kiev in 1979. The ease of not having to cook up a meal from scratch suited the working woman and the popularity of the ready-meal soared – an innovation that most certainly changed how we ate as we entered the ‘80s.
Arguably their greatest invention remains the adored packaged sandwich, created by M&S in the spring of 1980. Packaged sandwiches are now a staple in our lives and the industry is booming, its annual worth estimated at £8 billion – so it may seem surprising that the idea had never been tried before, but it hadn’t. Packaged sandwiches were a huge novelty when they started being sold on the Marks and Spencer shop floor for as little as 43p just 37 years ago. Some thought them outlandish – who would pay for something they could just as easily make at home? But they sold, and sold fast. The way that we lived and worked was changing and soon every supermarket was following the trend. In the early 90s, the head of their sandwich department developed M&S’s first dedicated “food to go” section, with its own tills and checkouts, in Manchester. The innovation was a huge success and prefigured the layout of most contemporary supermarkets.
But as we know, the advent of the modern-day supermarket, combined with the changing lifestyles and expectations of consumers has bought about one of today’s biggest environmental challenges – food waste. The total estimate for UK food waste stands at a staggering 10.2 million tonnes. Of that, 7.1 million tonnes are thrown away in our homes – with 70% classed as ‘avoidable’ (meaning every year we put 5.0 million tonnes of food that could have been eaten into our bins, worth an estimated £15 billion). Marks and Spencer are working to address this problem through advancements in the products and packaging that they sell. They engage their customers and encourage them to store and use food more efficiently – for example shoppers have been given tips on how to avoid food waste and the clarity of food date labelling has been improved.
Of the remaining 3.1 million tonnes of UK food waste, 260,000 tonnes come from retail, 1.85 million from manufacturers and around 1 million from hospitality and food service. This waste has been the focus of intense scrutiny in recent years, which has successfully resulted in a 50% increase in the amount redistributed to good causes in just two years, according to WRAP. This brings the 2017 total to the equivalent of 102 million meals redistributed – to the value of £130 million.
Marks & Spencer’s approach to food waste is comprehensive and they have committed to reducing food waste by 20% by 2020 and becoming a zero-waste business by 2025. Their primary aim is to reduce the amount of waste created in the first place and they’ve invested in new stock forecasting and planning systems as well as comprehensive supplier engagement schemes. They’ve also increased the volume of short life food sold at a discount to customers and this process now consistently clears most of the products that would otherwise have been disposed of. After redistributing whatever possible to good causes through the Neighbourly platform, any remaining surplus goes to anaerobic digestion (a process that turns food waste into electricity – some of which is bought back to power M&S stores) – absolutely nothing goes to landfill.
To date, M&S stores have donated around 5.6 million meals to local communities through the Neighborly platform. This includes surplus baked goods, cupboard items, fruit, vegetables and chilled food (meat, dairy, fish, frozen food, ready meals, juices, sandwiches). They also donate flowers and non-food surplus like cleaning products, laundry items and toiletries. Their stores are connected to more than 850 local charities across the UK where meals, food parcels and a helping hand are provided to those who need it.
Through Neighbourly, every store is partnered with a nearby group such as a community café, foodbank or homeless shelter that receives daily alerts to let them know when surplus is available. Thanks to these donations, charity partners can benefit from their resources going a little further, enabling them to provide fresh items, fruit and vegetables to people in the community who wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford them. The stores also provide wider support to their local charities through their year-long Local Charity Fundraising and annual volunteering programmes.
Here are just a few of the local causes that M&S support through Neighbourly:
Whitechapel Centre is the leading homelessness and housing charity in Liverpool supporting people to get back on their feet and providing them with a hot meal and a kind smile. Local M&S stores (and other retailers) give their unsold food to the centre so that this service can be provided. The charity also gives advice on housing, employment and basic facilities for the homeless. They are committed to helping people who are sleeping rough, living in hostels or struggling to manage their accommodation find a home and learn essential independent living skills. They work closely with each individual to get them the right help.
Norwich Food Hub collect surplus food from many stores in the area to redistribute it to community groups and local charities across the city. The hub was born from Director Rowan van Tromp’s passion surrounding environmental sustainability within the food supply chain and realisation that there was a lack of this type of service in the area. They receive and sort the food surplus before redistributing it to the vulnerable people across the city who are living at or below the breadline. Sadly, food poverty is a large issue in Norwich but the food hub’s work to redistribute surplus food is helping to lessen the problem.
In Yeovil, the community meals service delivers hot meals for the elderly or those who struggle to cook for themselves. Their meals are homemade and delivered by volunteers to people who might be suffering with dementia or physical issues that prevent them from cooking. Through this service carers are given a break from the task of preparing dinner by having a hot meal delivered instead, taking the strain away and brightening people’s days.
Nowadays we find that most businesses are actually doing more to change on the inside than many people appreciate, and M&S continues to lead from the front as customer expectations about what kind of companies they want to support change. As M&S colleagues continue to challenge why more can't be done, we at Neighbourly are continually working on solutions that connect their contribution so that customers notice and want to know how they can join in. We're extremely proud of our 4+ year partnership with M&S and how we've proved that a national business can indeed make a local difference in every community it serves.
For more information on Plan A, have a look at corporate.marksandspencer.com/plan-a
How to get involved in the M&S surplus scheme
Marks and Spencer are continuing to expand their food surplus scheme, making sure they can donate as much food surplus as possible and make a positive impact in the community. If you have a charity or community cause that could regularly collect surplus, you should join the Neighbourly platform and create a free page for your group. Your organisation will need a Level 2 (or equivalent) food hygiene certified no longer than 2.5 years ago. For chilled collections, you’ll need cool bags or boxes, freezers for storage and volunteers to collect after store closing in the evening.