M&S blaze a trail in CSR

Pictured Tanaiste Joan Burton with Alison Grainger Head of Ireland M&S and Kieran McGowan Chairman BITCI

Pictured Tanaiste Joan Burton with Alison Grainger Head of Ireland M&S and Kieran McGowan Chairman BITCI

If sustainability were an ingredient, you’d find it in Marks & Spencer’s meals. If it were a thread, it would be woven into its garments. In fact, it’s the building block on which the business is built.

At Marks & Spencer Ireland, it isn’t enough to be profitable. It has to be sustainable. It achieves this through CSR – corporate social responsibility.

“M&S has been in Ireland for a long time, since November 1979,” said Kenneth Daly, its Head of Marketing and Selling. “That in itself is a testament to the way we run our business. We consider ourselves a significant part of the Irish retail landscape.”

Success here matters. Ireland is M&S’s biggest operation worldwide, outside of the UK.

Wherever it operates, M&S has long been a trailblazer in ethical trading. The launch in 2007 of its fabled Plan A document, a 100 point, five year plan, saw it give a very public hostage to fortune in terms of its commitment to being carbon neutral.

Further initiatives include Shwopping, enabling customers to donate unwanted clothing to Oxfam, and Forever Fish programme, promoting sustainable fish production.

The ultimate goal is to become the world’s most sustainable major retailer.

M&S Ireland is playing its part. “Our vision is about ensuring we are in touch with the local communities in which we operate,” explained Sandra Fagan, Head of HR, Republic of Ireland. “We’re really proud of the initiatives that are ongoing as part of that.”

These include its Ready for Work programme, which helps people who have suffered difficulties with addiction, who are struggling with homelessness or who have been in trouble with the law, to get back into the workforce.

Since it was launched in 2001, 468 people have participated in the programme.

The company is also the Lead Sponsor of the Schools Business Partnership, in which 192 schools participate, many in disadvantaged areas. To date 22,000 students have participated in labour market skills training such as mock interviews.  Six M&S stores are matched with a secondary school – M&S Killarney, Cork, Clonmel, Galway, Letterkenny and Mary St in Dublin.

“We have a value system in M&S which enables us to be ‘future fit’,” said Daly.

“It is built around four principals – being in touch, inspiration, integrity and innovation. For me, CSR is the enabler of the ‘in touch’ element of that. CSR is what keeps us in touch with our employees, our customers and with our communities.”

Getting the Business Working Responsibly Mark, Ireland’s only certification for responsible and sustainable business practices, is an important part of staying ‘in touch’.

“It validates the work we do to ensure that there is no distance between us and our communities,” he said.

Keeping in touch with all our business’s stakeholders brings tangible business benefits.

“It builds attachments. It’s a connection with people that enables them to say ‘I trust M&S’ and that is what we benefit from,” he said.

He speaks from personal experience. “When I joined M&S in 1996, from Louth, there were only three stores in the country. I was trying to find out about the business for my interview. I couldn’t find much but what I did find out was that they had a reputation for integrity and great customer service. I have to say, nearly 20 years later, it feels to me that the Mark was a vindication of that feeling I got then. I was right.”

What’s more, winning the Mark is a way of validating just how close it is to its market here. “We’re a British company. What our community initiatives do is keep us grounded right in the middle of the community in Ireland. We’re really proud of what we have achieved here,” he said.

While the UK business has its own UK charity partners, in Ireland, every cent raised goes to Irish charity partners, he points out. “CSR is a lever to get some of that giving done,” he said.

M&S Ireland is also committed to helping its Irish suppliers grow sustainably. “We’re really passionate about our Irish suppliers, whether it’s berries from Keelings, water from Glenpatrick or chocolates from Lir, we have Irish suppliers here who have gone on to supply M&S in the UK.”

Winning the Mark was challenging but the audit process was revealing, according to Sandra Fagan. “We knew we were doing a huge amount of work on the CSR front, but it was only when we sat down to go through the questionnaire that we realised just how much.”

The company scored particularly highly in relation to workplace programmes and policies.

“When the assessors went out to interview our staff, we couldn’t know how those interviews would go,” said Fagan.  “What came back to us really strongly was just how robust the relationships are with one another in M&S.”

“We pride ourselves on being a top tier retail employer and integrity is a huge part of what we offer our workforce,” said Daly.

It was also public recognition of the company’s CSR practice.

“For me CSR is about being able to tell stakeholders I can stand over everything we do in this organisation, whether in relation to customers, employees or suppliers,” he said.

“It’s the fair price we pay our suppliers. It’s the fair trade goods we stock on our shelves. It’s the berries we get from 20 minutes up the road or the milk from one hour away. You don’t see the pay back of all of that work in the short term, but over time, because it is consistent, it is what leads to the tremendous amount of goodwill out there for M&S.”