Oliver Balch talks to Louise Nicholls of Marks and Spencer about the task responsibly sourcing their products

Louise Nicholls has worked for Marks and Spencer (M&S) for over 20 years, and has been leading the retailer’s ethical trade programme for over a decade. She formed part of the small team that developed the company's ground-breaking Plan A, a 100-point, five-year plan to address a wide range of environmental and social issues. Louise was also instrumental in setting up the supplier data exchange initiative, Sedex. Much of her time is spent travelling the world to meet and interact with M&S’ global supply base. She will be speaking about impact measurement for responsible resourcing at this year's Responsible Business Summit.

Ethical Corporation: M&S is investing considerable finance and human resources in promoting responsible sourcing. What motivates this investment?

Louise Nicholls: If we work with workplaces that have really engaged employees, good management systems and safe working conditions, then the evidence shows a very clear set of business benefits. It [responsible business practice] reduces staff absenteeism and it’s often associated with higher productivity and quality too. So there is a clear win-win for us as a business.

We also know that the more we understand the supply chain, then the more opportunities open up to us as a business. End-to-end supply chain mapping helps us to become more efficient, for instance. It enables us to be much more resilient too because we understand where we source from and what the possible risks are. The ability to identify unique points of difference, as well as to explore new emerging products and new models of working also sets our business at an advantage.

EC: Can you give an example of how the company’s supply chain management approach has generated a new business opportunity?

LN: Sure. We have done lots to help our tea suppliers [in Kenya] to convert to Fairtrade, for example. During a visit to these Fairtrade producers, they told me that what they would really love to do was pack their tea and sell it to the African market. Out of that conversation, we came back and applied for a DFID [Department for International Development] grant and together we helped them establish a packing facility. As a result, they could sell their first packed-at-source tea. We then sold this in the UK, but they were also able to launch their own Fairtrade tea in the African market – a first for Africa.

EC: What would you define as the key components of M&S’ approach to responsible sourcing?

LNs: We have a three-point strategy essentially. The first is about building awareness. Whatever issue we’re looking at, it’s vital to set very clear standards and to communicate clearly about what we expect our suppliers to do. It’s about having some simple tools to help engage them. That’s where an initiative such as Sedex [a supplier data exchange] is so important. Sedex provides one common communication, which tells people what ethical trade is about and what suppliers have to do to comply.

The second element of our strategy revolves around building capacity. This has been massive for us. We don’t want suppliers to have the mindset, ‘we do this because our customers tells us to do this’. We want to take them on a journey so they can understand why responsible business is important to their business. One of the ways we do this is by running training programmes for workers to address the root cause of bad practice.

The final part centres on embedding good practice into how our suppliers and ourselves do business. This is about finding mechanisms to make responsible practices really business relevant. For example, we tell our people that every product must have a sustainability attribute by 2020, as defined by Plan A [M&S’s sustainability target-driven strategy]. We also have balance scorecards, where we give equal merit to sustainability performance as we do to commercial and technical improvements.

EC: What advice would you give to others when it comes to engaging suppliers on the need for responsible business?  

LN: First, be really clear about what the requirements are. Keep it simple and clarify the ways of working so people are encouraged to participate. It’s imperative to build trust with suppliers at the outset as well. If not, you run the risk of suppliers hiding information and telling us what they think we want to hear. Another thing we’ve learnt relates to data paralysis. Asking for too much information can leave you unable to see the wood for the trees. So it’s about being really targeted about what data it is that you want, and then being clear on how you’re going to proactively use it to drive something forward.

EC: M&S is involved in a wide range of industry and cross-sector initiatives to promote responsible sourcing. Why do you see collaboration in this space as so important?

LN: It’s partly about leveraging. M&S is actually quite a small retailer globally so collaborating allows us to move at a faster pace. Partnerships enable us to identify common areas of alignment. Collectively, we can then put all our energy into driving action around these areas in a much harder and faster way than we could on our own.

Collaboration works best when there is less talk and more action. People work much better when they are learning together as well. In that vein, it’s important to recognise when some collaborations have run their course. Collaborations are often good for a period of time, but sometimes they can grow a little stale. You shouldn’t keep pushing at something that’s no longer working. 

EC: You’ll be speaking about responsible sourcing at the 2014 Responsible Business Summit on 20th May. What are you hoping to get out of the event? 

LN: I’ll be looking to share information, best practice and exchange ideas with contemporaries and leaders in sustainability. The scale and ambition of Plan A cannot be achieved by M&S acting alone, therefore events like this offer us the opportunity to learn from and collaborate with others that are facing similar challenges. 


The Responsbile Business Summit is a forum through which we at Ethical Corporation seek to promote the notion of sustainability as being centric to business success. Among the attendees this year are SABMiller, Alliance Boots, Sainsbury's, BUPA and The Crown Estate. If you are interested, you can download the brochure for the event here.

interview  Louise Nicholls  Marks and Spencer  Responsible Business Summit 

The Responsible Business Summit 2014

May 2014, London, UK

Make sustainable innovation add to your bottom line. 15+ CEOs and C-Suite from leading multinationals plus heads of CSR will discuss the future of sustainability

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