Raymond Snoddy talks to the Marks & Spencer executive who is making sustainability pay dividends for the high street retailer
For Munish Datta, the birth of his son Yush nearly six years ago helped to bring together his personal and professional ambitions in a new way.
“You start thinking a lot more long-term when you have a little one, about the sort of world he will be growing up in. You want to make sure he enjoys the sort of simple things I do – bees and butterflies in the garden and clean air,” says the 39-year-old Marks & Spencer executive, who has worked for the high street retail chain for 18 years.
Yush happened to be just a little bit younger than Plan A, the M&S sustainability programme launched in 2007, and the fact that the two things came together got the head of sustainability strategy thinking about what his personal legacy would be.
Mr Datta, a graduate commercial manager in M&S shops who worked in international marketing for the group, took over responsibility under the plan for reducing carbon impacts across all M&S buildings.
“It was personal, but it was also the direction the business was going in and I wanted to be part of it,” he says, adding that the initial focus concentrated on how to reduce energy and water use, and making sure waste didn’t go to landfill.
Lessons learnt in retail can be applied in other industries, such as hospitality, leisure, hotels, schools and hospitals
“At the end of the day, we are fairly humble shopkeepers. Our business is selling stuff in shops. We are not experts in making buildings more environmentally friendly and sustainable,” he concedes.
Seven years on, with help of collaborations with sustainability specialists and incorporating the latest technology, the “humble shopkeepers” have achieved impressive results.
Compared with 2006-7, M&S was 34 per cent more energy efficient last year, and apart from reducing the company’s environmental impact using less energy and water, and implementing a zero landfill policy, the process has had a significant business impact.
By 2013 the cumulative net benefit to M&S of Plan A, according to Mr Datta, who was born in Kenya of Asian descent, was £465 million with about a third coming from buildings.
The most dramatic example of how buildings can be made more sustainable can be seen at Cheshire Oaks, near Ellesmere Port on the Wirral, the largest store M&S has ever built.
It is the largest building in Europe to have walls created out of pre-fabricated hemp panels and the largest roof made out of Glulam timber (engineered sustainable softwood) rather than steel. The toilets are flushed with harvested rainwater, the store is heated by a bio-mass boiler, and maximum use is made of natural and LED lighting.
The store, which opened two years ago and has won many awards, was described as “a star project” by the Technology Strategy Board, the UK’s innovation agency, and has produced a 42 per cent reduction in energy use, compared with an equivalent store, and is well ahead of the 30 per cent company target. Carbon emissions are down 40 per cent against a projected 25 per cent.
“It’s a really beautiful shop and, when you have a thing of beauty which is also sustainable, that is when you almost hit the jackpot. I’m not saying we have at Cheshire Oaks, but it’s a very big step in the right direction,” says Mr Datta.
He is now busy distilling the lessons of headline stores, such as Cheshire Oaks, to begin retro-fitting many of the company’s more than 700 stores in the UK and Ireland.
Emphasis is being placed on four areas – fitting LED lighting which reduces lighting energy by 75 per cent, reclaiming heat from refrigerated cabinets to reuse in store, fixing leaks and collecting rainwater, which in turn is used to water bio-diverse green walls which also help to provide insulation.
Apart from making general improvements, M&S plans to retrofit such features in at least 25 shops in the UK and Ireland every year.
Mr Datta believes that the retail industry is making a significant contribution to sustainability with many chains working on their own Plan A. John Lewis’s responsible development programme, Sainsbury’s 20 by 20 and Kingfisher’s Net Positive are examples.
“This isn’t a space where we necessarily compete, particularly on the energy front,” he says, adding that business rivals sit together to share information at venues such as the British Retail Consortium.
He believes that the lessons learnt in retail can be applied in other industries, such as hospitality, leisure, hotels, schools and hospitals, and throughout their own supply chain partners in food and clothing manufacturing.
As for M&S, earlier this year the company became the first retailer to win the triple award of certification from the Carbon Trust for what it has achieved in carbon, water and waste reduction.
Many of the things that seven years ago seemed radical have already become commonplace.
“When we started asking technical contractors for FSC-certified [Forest Stewardship Council] sustainable timber, they thought it was a football team,” jokes Mr Datta, who adds it is now difficult to find timber that is not sustainably certified.
Now M&S is moving on to a new phase with commitments on ethically auditing all its supply chains, not just in the UK, but all over the world, including buildings and working conditions.
But Mr Datta gets most pleasure from the unexpected impact on staff and customers of buildings such as Cheshire Oaks.
M&S provided information in-store about the building using square QR codes and expected a few hundred enthusiasts to download the data to their smartphones. More than 60,000 did.
“If you can present this beautiful environment, which everyone loves and talks about, in a really simple way and make it easy to find information, then retail can reach out to every house in the country – that is surely the biggest prize here,” says Mr Datta.
In another example of the personal and professional life coming together, along with his wife Artika, he is a trustee of a small charity, the Rama Foundation, set up by his parents, which provides information and help on sustainable development for some of India’s poorest communities.
There is no connection between Rama and M&S, but it just happens that India is Mark & Spencer’s fastest growing business worldwide with 50 stores already open and another 50 planned.