Wednesday, 6 March 2013

Ambushed at Ecobuild

Ecobuild is a major trade show being held at ExCeL in London’s docklands to showcase green building technologies. It is not clear why Marks and Spencer (M&S) chose to be featured, but the company will now regret ever getting involved after being ambushed over their sustainability claims. The ambush occurred at the end of the day’s big event, Joanna Lumley in conversation with Jonathan Dimbleby. M&S have appointed Joanna Lumley as their worldwide ambassador of Plan A, described as ‘the eco and ethical programme which aims to make M&S the world's most sustainable major retailer’.

M&S has earned respect amongst many sustainability professionals for leading the way with a program of initiatives to improve the sustainability of the company, and have done this in a way that has also improved the bottom line. A group of M&S executives hovered around the back of the hall, concerned perhaps that their ambassador might stray from her script. They need not have worried; she spoke with passion about the need to show more respect for the environment and remembered to plug what M&S are doing through the activities of Plan A. Her knowledge of sustainability might have been flaky but as one of our most likeable actresses we forgive her that.

Jonathan Dimbleby chaired the session with aplomb and Joanna Lumley was engaging, entertaining and good value for the fee M&S pay her. However, it should have been obvious that such a well-orchestrated PR event was risky.  The audience is not in the pay of M&S and two questions were particularly difficult. One lady asked the M&S ambassador why M&S doesn’t do what it preaches, cutting the clothes that people donate, preventing their reuse, and taking action to make out-of-date food inedible rather than donating such food to the needy. The other questioner asked why M&S do not stock fair-trade goods. Did the people asking the questions have their facts right? Perhaps so, perhaps not, but they were clearly genuine people with genuine views; the damage was done.

Appointing a celebratory will get you noticed, but using a celebratory to communicate how sustainable you are, runs the risk you will be accused of ‘greenwash’ . It is better to do a great job of sustainability and let the PR take care of itself than do a great job of PR and have your inadequacies exposed.

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