Opinion: Why are M&S not doing more to curb our plastic epidemic?



Photo credit: Rachel Clarke.

By Anders Lorenzen

Finally, the world’s media, the public and some politicians are starting to wake up to our plastic epidemic. In the UK the government introduced a 5p plastic bag charge in 2015, after having ignored the problem for years. Undoubtedly, part of the change in tune was due to the bombardment of images of plastic pollution both in the UK and across the world.

In 2017 and now in 2018 these images have not gone away. In fact, the focus and public awareness have increased and become a key government policy, arguably helped along by the much-loved naturalist and TV presenter, David Attenborough, as he highlighted it in his Blue Planet 2 series shown last year.

The plastic problem is a serious one. Combined with the release of CO2 which continues unabated, the world’s oceans find themselves in a catastrophic condition, arguably as never experienced before during human habitation of the Earth. And, needless to say, the faster we can move towards a plastic-free world, the faster this will contribute to moving our societies away from our addiction to oil, and in return reduce emissions and tackle climate change.

M&S and plastic

One of the UK’s most loved retailers, Marks & Spencer ( M&S), publicly say that they take sustainability seriously. Walking into one of their stores you can’t help but notice the messages on the walls which announce how ambitious they are to cut waste, reduce emissions and increase resource efficiency.

But if they really are so serious about this, one can reasonably ask what is happening to their ambition? They remind us that they were one of the first UK retailers to bring in a plastic bag charge – seven years ahead of legislation.

But since then not much has happened.

I must be fair here and give credit where credit is due. Once they had brought in the charge, they were, in fact, leading the pack amongst retailers in the UK, but now the majority of retailers are catching up, at least on plastic pollution. So you might expect that as pioneers M&S would up their ambition.

One thing that always strikes me when checking out of a store is that the cashiers almost beg you to buy a plastic bag, even if you buy just one item such as a sandwich. This is not really a progressive policy and makes a mockery of reducing plastic pollution. A big retailer like M&S has a duty to encourage a behavioural change against the relentless consumerism that is destroying the environment. At present M&S is contributing to that insane model of reckless consumerism

And it is not only the use of plastic bags that is a problem but also the plastic used as packaging.


In January a tweet went viral from an angry M&S shopper who discovered they were selling for £ 2 a sliced cauliflower wrapped around in plastic which they named ‘Cauliflower Steak’. The customer said that you could buy a whole cauliflower from a vegetable store for £0.70. But, of course, the price was not the point. They were trying out a supposedly clever new marketing technique in order to sell ever more products, even though this comes at the expense of the environment. M&S later said it was part of their vegetable range but, it is believed that due to public pressure they have now removed this product from sale. But what on earth were they thinking? How could this ever have been signed off by the company? This episode makes you question whether M&S are really committed to sustainability?

What M&S should do?

But, of course, you should not criticise a company without offering solutions to what they should do differently.

First of all, the no-brainer first step has got to be to discourage plastic bag or carrier bag purchases, and so cashiers should not be handing them out. They should of course still be available for customers when requested but not the other way around. Perhaps, behind the cashiers, posters could be displayed illustrating how plastic is destroying the environment, a bit like the cancer messages we now see on cigarette packages. Right now plastics are really like a cancer on our environment. And while we’re at it, why not make it rewarding. They could, through the Sparks Card (M&S’s reward scheme), actually offer you points as a reward every time you don’t purchase a plastic bag, or minus points when you do. This could be extended to whenever you buy a product not wrapped in plastic.

And while we’re at it, why not `game-ify` it. They can create a leaderboard on their Sparks website and reward customers who shop with the environment in mind. This could of course in the future be extended to cover a range of sustainability issues.

But fundamentally M&S must rapidly plan for a plastic-free world and drastically reduce packaging in their products while increasing the fee customers have to pay for plastic and carrier bags.

Why M&S?

I could, of course, have focused on any other supermarket chain on this subject, but as M&S is the one most vocal in saying they care about sustainability issues, I felt it was only right to direct these remarks at them.


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