Marks & Spencer:
"Understanding sustainable cotton options"

Marks and Spencer plc (M&S) is best known for their broad and ambitious Plan A for sustainability. For cotton, they had initially committed to source 70% from sustainable sources by 2020. They subsequently revised their target to 100% which was met in 2019. To meet this commitment they use Better Cotton, Fairtrade Cotton, Organic Cotton and recycled cotton.

A public commitment

"We use more cotton in our clothing than any other raw material", Phil Townsend, Technical Lead for Environmental Sustainability, explains. "A decade ago, with Plan A, we started making our products more sustainable. We realized that cotton has a significant environmental impact in terms of water, land use, chemicals and social issues. We felt it was our responsibility to make a solid, firm and critical commitment to sourcing more sustainable cotton. We made this target public as well, so we can be held accountable."

Senior management support

According to Townsend, it's absolutely critical to get buy-in from your senior management before you start sourcing sustainable cotton. "It shouldn't only be the responsibility of a small sustainability team, it has to be embedded throughout the company. For us, it helped to break our targets down to each of the business unit areas and further down to the individual product buying teams. This way, collaborators are not just playing in an overall target, but they know their own specific targets."

Different cotton options

Phil Townsend emphasizes that when a company starts looking into sustainable cotton, they first need to understand the differences between the sustainable cotton standards and their relative benefits. “You then need to develop a strategy for this. Do you want to work with just one option, or do you want a balanced portfolio of different sustainable cotton products? Further down the line, you also need to train your sourcing and buying teams as each sustainable cotton works differently in that respect. Fairtrade and BCI have been great in supporting us with training needs. We also picked up a lot of training ourselves. You need to keep these costs in mind when you start your sustainable cotton journey.”

You need to keep these costs in mind when you start your sustainable cotton journey.
Phil Townsend Technical Lead for Environmental Sustainability

A clear marketing plan

What’s Townsend’s advice for ensuring suppliers’ cooperation in the journey towards sustainable cotton? “Discuss price premiums with them in order to make costs transparent. In this way you can identify whether costs are fair or not. You need a lot of patience and good negotiation skills to reach good agreements on this. We also do a lot of in-country training with our suppliers, making them aware of why we’re asking them to source sustainably and also assessing their performance.”

Transparent price premiums

A big opportunity that M&S still needs to realize is tapping into customer awareness and driving more demand for sustainable cotton from consumers. “To achieve this we’re developing a clear marketing plan to engage with customers and make sure they understand our sustainable cotton story in a clear and concise way.”

Impactful change

Townsend visited smallholder cotton projects supported by M&S.

I would recommend all brands to do the same. I saw with my own eyes that the work that we do is meaningful and actually delivers change. The farmers told me that they’ve improved their yields and they’re using less water, pesticides and chemicals. Those trips were amazing experiences.
Phil Townsend

The advice of M&S in summary

  • Make a measurable time-bound commitment to sourcing more sustainable cotton and make it public.
  • Embed your sustainable cotton strategy throughout your company.
  • Understand the differences between sustainable cotton standards and their relative benefits.
  • Discuss price premiums transparently with your suppliers to identify whether these costs are fair or not.
  • Visit some smallholder cotton projects to experience the changes that you support and communicate these internally.

Do you want to know more about Marks & Spencer’s sustainable cotton sourcing? Phil Townsend is willing to answer your questions.

Contact phil townsend

This article was updated in January 2020 to reflect the new target of M&S and new job title of Phil Townsend.

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