There are plenty of Big Things in the world to get worked up about, but sometimes it’s the small and trivial that irk.
The image above is from my friend James Cridland (used here with his kind permission) who spotted it in (I assume) his local Marks & Spencers. What caught James’ attention was the little hat on top of these bottles of still pink lemonade (marketed as being part of their ‘Great British Summer’ range, although I assume they contain no actual rainwater). The hats are very small – just big enough to perch on top of a cat’s head, as seen in the customer photo below shared on M&S’ Facebook page (posted here without anyone’s permission):
The point to note here is that the hats serve no function or purpose. They are not large enough to be used by anyone as an actual hat. They are decorative, I suppose, if you have something very small to decorate and low expectations in decoration generally. I’m sure you could find other uses for them if you thought hard enough about it – you could possibly blow your nose in it, for example, if you have a small nose. But they were not obviously designed with any particular purpose in mind other than to sit on top of the bottle, looking cute.
What irked James about this (and, consequently, me) is that M&S makes a very big deal about its commitment to environmental sustainability. They have a thing called ‘Plan A’ which is a lengthy set of policies on sustainability. They want you to believe that they take environmental issues very seriously. Plan A is promoted with prominent signage in M&S stores and their policies, as well as reports on their implementation, are given in lengthy detail on a section of the company’s website dedicated to Plan A. Even the name – Plan A – is clearly meant to imply that environmental sustainability is the company’s first priority. “We’re doing this because it’s what you want us to do. It’s also the right thing to do. We’re calling it Plan A because we believe it’s now the only way to do business. There is no Plan B.”
Unnecessary or surplus retail packaging has long been a issue for anyone with even a passing concern for the environment, and many retailers have been very responsive to this. Even if it is recyclable (which it often isn’t) excess packaging requires natural resources to manufacture it, adds weight to the product which increases the fuel required to transport it, and creates waste that ends up in landfills. Packaging that is purely decorative but serves no functional purpose other than to be thrown in the bin is unforgiveable. M&S insists that “we’ve been working on reducing the packaging we use” and aims 12.4 to 12.9 and 13.1 of Plan A relate to the reduction or recyclability of packaging. Hats on bottles, made from non-recyclable material and which will mostly go straight in the bin, would seem to be a pretty obvious affront to these aims.
James raised his concern with M&S on Twitter. This was their response:
@jamescridland Sorry if this left you disappointed James. We’re not doing it for all drinks but we’ll certainly take your comments on board
— M&S (@marksandspencer) May 14, 2013
They then, with an apparently straight face, referred James to their Plan A website.
I was no more impressed by this than was James.
This is, like the hat, a small thing. It is, as someone else who follows me on Twitter quite reasonably suggested, an odd thing to get upset about. I don’t know how many of those little hats have been made but I’m sure that, cumulatively, they will take up very little space in the various landfills in which they will inevitably end up.
What bothers me is what these hats say about the real commitment of M&S to Plan A. How embedded is Plan A in the company’s culture, really? Someone in M&S made a conscious decision to have these hats designed, manufactured and incorporated into the drink’s packaging (or approved the proposal from a supplier to do this). If I may be (even more) cynical, they probably made this decision because they thought it would make it easier to charge a premium price for the drink. At no point did this person, or anyone working with them, pipe up and say, ‘hang on, what about Plan A and our commitments to reduce unnecessary packaging? Nice idea but, apart from some temporary feline accessorising, this thing is going to get chucked straight in the bin. It does nothing to improve the utility or quality of the product – I can’t see how we can go with it and stay true to Plan A.’ Or, perhaps worse still, someone did say all these things but was over-ruled, maybe by someone who was just so caught up in how adorable the hats are and how funny they’d look on someone’s cat.
It’s just a small thing, but it suggests a bigger truth. Corporate responsibility is our first priority, except when it isn’t.
So much for Plan A. Might be worth starting work on Plan B, just in case we need it.