The leading companies in corporate sustainability take a holistic view that looks at the big picture, compares it to set sustainability indicators, analyses the trade-offs and pays attention to detail. Local governments and city administrations are also in a position to do this - and yet often do not have their decision-making practices joined up.

I'm going to look briefly at two examples. Boots UK and Marks & Spencer's (M&S). 

Boots UK

The Boots case study comes from a new white paper, ‘Energising the drops: Towards a Holistic Approach to Carbon and Water Footprint Assessments’, which provides guidance for governments and businesses on how to manage their climate and water impacts simultaneously, both locally and globally. It is published by sustainability consultants Best Foot Forward, part of the Anthesis Group, and the Water Footprint Network, and was released at the Nexus 2104: Water, Food Climate and Energy conference at the University of North Carolina.

It begins with an overview of the entire production process for products from sourcing the raw materials to their end of life, what the Ellen MacArthur Foundation calls cradle to cradle, part of its Closed Loop approach.

This is conducted using a web-based ‘product sustainability assessment model’, a tool that enables Boots UK to quickly and simply analyse and score 24 sustainability indicators across the lifecycle of an individual product, including but not limited to, water and energy use.

These indicators are shown in the figure below. Carbon footprint is not considered as a separate indicator, since the climate change impact is incorporated into the individual indicators listed - otherwise crucial greenhouse gas emission sources are omitted.

Holistic analysis of cradle to grave product process

This allows the company to create a sustainability profile footprint of the product, to compare relative performance and identify areas where interventions can make the most difference. By repeating this process across all of its products it produces a database of sustainability performance data which helps in future decision-making. The analysis can be focused on particular aspects, such as the water footprint.


M&S has just become the first retailer to receive the triple award of certification for achievements in carbon, water and waste reduction from the Carbon Trust, which objectively recognises the fact that it has made a real year-on-year progress. 

M&S' success revolves around its Plan A, an eco and ethical programme, which has helped it to:

  • Achieve zero waste to landfill;
  • Become a carbon neutral company;
  • Reduce energy use in stores, offices and warehouses by 31 per cent;
  • Reduce store refrigerant gas carbon emissions by 60 per cent;
  • Use two billion fewer single-use carrier bags in its food halls;
  • It also tackled water-use in its stores and supply chain.

 tea pickers in IndiaIt has committed to tackling every aspect of its operations, including the provision of a living wage along the remote ends of the supply chain (right) to becoming carbon neutral. It has created a carbon calculator which its customers can use, with the means instantly to purchase carbon offsetting from a specific range of renewable energy projects which make a real difference in developing countries.

It also improved its own energy performance. It believes that "we are only as strong as the communities in which we operate", which prompts it to work with many partners including UNICEF, agricultural training deliverers and fair trade organisations.

This is a motto that many local administrations could do well to adopt.

Plan A has seven pillars which any administration could also emulate:

  1. involving its own customers (municipalities could involve their citizens);
  2. making Plan A how it does business (municipalities could embed sustainability into every aspect of their operations);
  3. address climate change (ditto);
  4. tackle waste (ditto);
  5. protect and enhance natural resources while using them (including water, food, plant products and minerals) (ditto);
  6. be a fair partner (municipalities could be ethical in dealings with their employees, stakeholders and supply chains)
  7. promote health and well-being (municipalities could encourage their citizens and employees to become more active and have improved diets).

Clem Constantine, Director of Property at M&S, said: “There’s a clear business case for managing and reducing our own impact on the environment. It saves money, helps us become more efficient and better prepares M&S for the future.”

Substitute 'our city' for 'M&S' and this could apply to any city. There is a clear business case for sustainability helping municipalities to reduce costs and make more efficient use of their resources while motivating and inspiring citizens to join in the combined project of making their city a better place to live.

M&S staff and customers on a beach clean operation

RIGHT: M&S staff and customers on a beach clean operation. Its annual report for 2013 claims that 5000 customers took part in its beach clean week.