In search of the perfect package: Marks & Spencer’s quest for sustainability

26 April 2013

Marks & Spencer launched Plan A in January 2007, setting out 100 commitments for the next five years – something it has since extended to 180 commitments to meet by 2015, with the ultimate goal of becoming the world’s most sustainable major retailer. Simon Oxley, packaging technologist at the retail giant, outlines how this programme has influenced some of the group’s buying decisions, and the changing role materials such as board and PET have in its packaging portfolio.

At Marks & Spencer, we have worked hard to reduce the amount of packaging we use, to a point where we now use 26% less than we did in 2007. Today, 91% of our products are easily recyclable, thereby reducing waste to landfill; we use sustainable raw materials wherever possible, and the majority of our products have labelling to help consumers dispose of their packaging in the right way.

However, we also recognise that packaging plays an important role in protecting products, maintaining quality and prolonging freshness, thus reducing food waste. Through Plan A, we are working with our customers and our suppliers to combat climate change, reduce waste, use sustainable raw materials, trade ethically and help our customers lead healthier lifestyles.

Since joining Marks & Spencer in May 2012, I have been involved in a number of projects and initiatives that have impacted the way we approach packaging at the group. Among these is our Fresher for Longer campaign, which is designed to help us all appreciate the relationship between food and its packaging. We are trying to get a message across that encourages the consumer to look at the whole product - not to view packaging as a dirty word that should be vilified but as something that has a very effective purpose.

Changing preconceptions

Despite evidence that storing food in its packaging can keep it fresher, we know that lots of us take food out of its packaging as soon as we unpack the shopping.

The idea that fruit and vegetables will sweat and go off quicker if left in their packaging is a very common misconception. Such misconceptions contribute to the fact that, in the UK, we throw away 4.4 million tons of food a year, costing around £12 billion. Yet, just by following on-pack instructions for storage, we'd give ourselves more time to eat our food purchases, thereby reducing this waste.

Obviously, there are certain brands that could be optimised in terms of packaging use, but it is important that you then look at the application in question. For instance, if the product is something that is positioned in the luxury goods space, then you have to be honest with yourself: it may not be optimised but would it have sold otherwise? It's a case of being reasonable. There is likely to be an audience for that particular product, and you are giving them something to take away that is special and luxurious.

As packaging technologist at Marks & Spencer and with a history in the field, I've encountered a number of debates regarding the best material use for a particular application. One such example, in the drinks field, is the use of cartonboard over PET or, equally, PET over cartonboard. My view is that, having worked at Britvic - a big user of PET - and at innocent drinks, a big carton user moving into PET, it is all down to the application you have identified.

A question of taste

Let's look at a number of different factors. When you focus on cost, PET is slightly cheaper; but look at it from a sustainability perspective: carton is made from a renewable resource while PET can be made more sustainable by incorporating a greater percentage of recycled content.

"A good product, well packaged, will sell well; a good product, badly packaged, won't."

If you want a product that will stand out on the shop shelf, PET enables you to present the product in a way that enables the consumer to see exactly what is inside the bottle. With cartonboard, however, you benefit from having a large printable surface but at the same time, carton production could be considered more expensive, as there are fewer manufacturers. For functionality on the go, you would have to opt for PET, but for shelf-life, carton swings it, thanks to the barrier within. As you can see, both PET and cartonboard have various pros and cons, so it really comes down to the application you require.

However, you also have to look at the packaging from the consumer's eyes. Do you want to make it stand out, or do you want to reassure consumers and make it clear that the product is something they are familiar with? For example, I recently brought some honey back from France, which was packaged in a white pot. People's initial reaction was to assume it was a yoghurt, or something similar, and not honey. That association was made due to the pot colour, which demonstrates how the subconscious works. If you are disrupting the package, you always have to keep the reassurance of the customer in mind.

Successful rebranding

Another example can be drawn from my time at innocent drinks. There was a quality orange juice available, not from concentrate, but it was packaged in cartons, and sold around one to two million litres a year. It was a big project of my team to relaunch the brand, with a slightly different recipe, in PET bottles. Now, it is selling closer to 100 million litres per annum. If you look at this project, the juice is still not from concentrate and the taste profile is similar but the key now is that the product disrupts the aisle in the sense that it is a PET bottle surrounded by many rival brands in cartons.

"You can have food stocks or dog food in pouches but they don't tell you what the product is in the way a bottle does ."

Freshly squeezed juice in a clear bottle reassures the customer, but it's an example of rebranding that disrupts the aisle while reassuring at the same time. We could have disrupted the aisle by presenting the product in glass or in a pouch but I'm not sure it would have had the same effect. You can have food stocks or dog food in pouches but, in my opinion, they don't tell you what the product is in the way a bottle does. A good product, well packaged, will sell well; a good product, badly packaged, won't.

For instance, fresh milk in pouches is a brilliant idea in my opinion, but they are disappearing from our shelves because people don't appear to be connecting with that product. That's one reason we put a lot into R&D into our milk bottles. We are lightweighting them, reducing colour in the cap and increasing recycled content in the bottles. These are positive steps we can make without disrupting the shopping aisle.

Packaging developments

At Marks & Spencer, our approach to packaging works in one of two ways: there is a push and a pull. The push is from our team asking what are the trends, the concepts and the real developments in the packaging space, and then working with suppliers. We then show these ideas to our category teams and suggest them for certain formats across our lines. The pull will be when we're given a brief that asks for a particular format and we will then aim to develop something to match those requirements.

It is interesting because we have a massive supply base - we have around 8,000 lines so there is always a lot going on. When looking at carton packaging, we have made changes to what we have used in our packaging. As I said earlier, we have worked hard to reduce the amount of packaging we use. We have also made other strides like using more sustainable raw materials such as those that are FSC-certified, and using a model forest programme, which respects the communities the wood is sourced from. We are also trying to make more of our materials recyclable. We have moved away from PVC and now use a bare minimum of polystyrene because these materials aren't widely recycled. There are still goals to be met, but we are on the right path.

Plan A is a scheme that aims to reduce waste and help customers lead a healthy lifestyle
Marks & Spencer is using more sustainable raw materials
Simon Oxley moved to Marks & Spencer in 2012 as a packaging manager within the food group.
Milk bottles are being lightweighted and their recycled content increased
Packaging plays an important role in protecting products and prolonging freshness

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