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A big thank you to the RSPB for inviting me to speak earlier this month at their Conference for Nature.

I was proud to share a stage with such distinguished names and for a cause which is close to my heart. 

For me it was important that business was there sharing a platform with committed campaigners and politicians. It is easily forgotten, but nature is at the heart of any consumer goods business. Soil, water, clean air, forests and pollinators are the basic building blocks of commerce. 

But nature is under pressure. In large part because of the impact of the very economic activity it helps fuel. Over fishing, deforestation, soil loss and climate change are all evidence of the harm that the business is not protecting and re-investing in its most important ‘factory’. 

Many business leaders today would accept the importance of nature and the pressure that it’s under. But at the same time many also feel a sense of hopelessness and feel the issue is too vast to be tackled. 

It is this sense of hopelessness that we businesses, NGOs and governments must confront.

We need to show that solutions exist and that there is a ‘big tent’ in which we can work together to spread the burden of global change. You don’t have to dig too deep to find those solutions. 

Let me take a couple of examples from our work.   

On fish

We set a bold goal in 2007, that all the fish we sell in our Food Halls would be sourced responsibly. By 2012 about 90% was coming from responsible sources and the other 10% working with WWF to improve. Without the bold goal, we’d never have got there. But that’s not the whole story. 

We've looked to protect the wider marine environment in an integrated way too.

First by voluntarily introducing a charge for carrier bags in our Food Halls. Helping reduce bag usage by nearly 80% and the profits from the charge split between WWF to protect the world’s oceans and MCS’ work to protect beaches and coastlines around the British Isles. 

On farming

We have entered into a three year partnership with the RSPB and The Butterfly Conservation Trust (BCT) that will significantly increase biodiversity at M&S supplier farms across the UK.

The RSPB and Butterfly Conservation Trust will provide biodiversity consultation services to M&S’ biggest produce farms with the aim of improving habitats for birds, bees and butterflies.

Farms are targeting a 10-25 per cent increase in bee and butterfly populations in three years and improved habitats for farmland birds such as owls, turtle doves and skylarks. Some farms have specifically been challenged with doubling the number of turtle doves - one of the UK’s most threatened species - within three years. 

These are the solutions that we must keep pushing hard for if we want to keep providing our customers with high quality products at a reasonable price point. 

The examples show that it’s not just about putting our own house in order but also working in partnership with wider industry, NGOs and governments to manage the economy and nature in a much more integrated way. 

It’s imperative that business recognises the value of nature and sets standards for raw material production across all it does. It needs to set targets to improve and not just alone but with others. 

NGOs need to create standards that allow step-by-step improvement and scaling across the whole market. In my mind there’s no point in having the top 5 per cent on a gold standard while 95 per cent of the market languish at the bottom. 50 per cent of the market on a ‘silver’ standard will move the dial in a much more dramatic way. 

I’m also calling on NGOs to harmonise standards, 16 different ways of doing only confuses business. We need a single, clear direction. 

For governments and regulators, set long term goals, to enable investment. Business won’t invest without certainty of the future. We’ve managed it for carbon now we need to do the same for nature more broadly. 

Only together, with these solutions, can we tackle this huge challenge. Giving nature a home and future.

This was originally posted on the RSPB blog and the image is courtesy of Aubrey Banfield.  

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