“Marks It Down Spencer” OR “Pret a Donate”: Which has a more sustainable practice?

When I returned to London, I noticed how businesses applied expiration dating practices to food products and wondered whether this was for sustainability, marketing, health, safety, or perhaps other reasons. Whilst there are certainly many tinned or dry goods which are packaged and have an expiry date on them, I have used products beyond the expiry date on pasta and coffees with no complaints. For nonfoods, I have noticed expiry dates on battery packages, yet I have also continued to use the batteries beyond these dates with no ill effects. So perhaps it is for increasing sales.

However, it was on a Saturday night that I noticed something slightly different. It was after 20:00pm. I had realized that I hadn’t had dinner yet, and I wasn’t going to a restaurant or pub. Instead, I decided to pick up something quick from a local Marks & Spencer Food Hall. As I was walking through the aisles, I was surprised when I saw a crowd. At first, I thought it must have been an incognito film star, pop singer, or some other celebrity who had just been discovered or the start of a flash mob (which I was ready to join), but it was only a woman dressed in one of the various M&S black and green outfits. Yet she was drawing such a huge crowd with her pricing tool and yellow stickers! She was actively marking down sandwiches, salads, and other prepared foods before they reached their expiry date. So how could I pass up a sandwich that was marked down from 3.50 to only 45p? I noticed the same practice at the local Sainsbury and Tesco later that week. This seemed like a great way to minimise food waste and provide reasonably priced food to people.

I later went to Pret A Manger which started as a small shop in 1984 in Hampstead, but was sold and expanded until it is now international. At Pret, I noticed quite a different approach. In fact, Pret expressly noted that they did not mark down sandwiches at the end of the day. How could this be for a company that is so dedicated to handmade natural food and sustainability (http://www.pret.com/sustainability/about.htm)? I thought to myself that this was such a waste of edible foods that could have gone to the hungry. Then as part of their Sustainability Strategy, I later learned that they say “We’re committed to minimising waste at all stages of the supply chain, food production and sending zero waste to landfill from our shops.” Interestingly, they “operates a fleet of LPG vans that deliver over 12,000 fresh meals to numerous shelters for the homeless in London every week. Many charities across the UK collect directly from our shops at the end of each day too.” Pret further notes that it “donates around 2.5 million products to UK homeless charities every year, with the added bonus of ensuring our fresh natural food goes to the homeless at the end of the day and not to landfill. In fact, this prevents up to 250 tonnes of food from ending up in landfill.” (see at http://www.pret.com/sustainability/waste.htm). So instead of marking down sandiwches at the end of the day to make a sale, they appear to be spending monies to getting these “fresh” foods to people who need it.

I will confess that Pret’s comment about throwing away edible foods in a landfill as “being bad for the environment” has me torn between whether they should be more focused on feeding the hungry or avoiding a landfill. In particular, they say “Our goal is to avoid landfill at all costs; we know it’s bad for the environment, that they’re filling up fast and that they’re becoming increasingly expensive. Getting our recycling scheme bedded in is essential. We’ve rolled out front- and back-of-house recycling and we’ve been composting our organic waste for a number of years now.” If they can find a better balance in how they phrase these statements, I would feel that they are better focused.

When I compared the efforts to minimize waste of Marks & Spencer versus Pret A Manger, I wondered which one is “better” for sustainability. In the end, as much as I liked my 45p M&S sandwich, it seemed like Pret was really doing more of the right thing for the right reasons, as opposed to making the last pence out of a sandwich. Yet it seems M&S could also meet a social need, if the people who most needed the discounted sandwiches could buy them. Perhaps Marks & Spencer, Sainsbury, Tesco, and other markets could form a multi-stakeholder initiative and emulate Pret by donating to a single charity at the end of each day, which charity would then deliver those sandwiches to the needy? It would require coordination, but it could have better outcomes.

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5 Responses to “Marks It Down Spencer” OR “Pret a Donate”: Which has a more sustainable practice?

  1. portiabang says:

    This is very interesting! I am thinking this could work here in SA where there are lots of people that do not have enough food. Personally I prefer the M&S option, I would change it slightly to ensure that there is a small enterprise that can deliver that food at good prices to people that are really in need. both are good but I much prefer the M&S to the Pret…

    Love your blog!

    • hotelchocam says:

      Thanks so much for your insights! Yes, they both do have their pros and cons. It seems to depend on what the institution’s bottom line is and which populations the institution is seeking to help. Lowered prices in the market itself defintiely draws people in to reduce potential spoilage, so it brings people to the food. But does it bring in the people who most need it? Possibly. On the other hand, bringing the food out to needy populations requires more investment and dedication to getting the food delivered in time, yet it could help the ones who are in the most need. Both approaches address reducing waste and spoliage of food, and both do get food to people. Yet should there be more consideration given as to whether the chosen approach is for good, good enough, or the greater good? Should they consider more than benefiting a few, but perhaps seeking to maximize how they could help a greater good or larger group of the needy populations? Of course, there may also be resource limiations that an organisation which limits its ability to increase these efforts. While many are already doing a good thing in helping to reduce waste and making foods available, perhaps “doing good” could evolve into doing something even better as they come to realise the possibilites. These organizations should continually monitor and reassess its current progess and successes, so the organisation and its programs can evolve and continue to improve to meet and support new challenges in the ever changing environment as appropriate. They could learn from each other’s approaches and perhaps come up with an even better approach to maximally benefit those in need.

  2. rbp046 says:

    Hi Hotelchocam, the issue of labelling is very topical here in the UK at the moment. Only yesterday morning I watched an interview highlighting the confusion that sell by / use by dates create. What was particularly concerning was the impact they have on consumer behaviour and the contribution to unnecessary waste this causes. I don’t know why consumers don’t seem able to look beyond the labels and for some foods allow their noses to guide them as to whether or not it’s edible. The Telegraph yesterday reported that 15% of food waste is caused by expiry dates on packaging. [ http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/eu/10841634/Best-before-labels-on-rice-coffee-and-pasta-reach-their-sell-by-date.html ] clearly not a good sustainable or financial position. Pret’s are interesting. They have tried to build a reputation for being an ethical business, fresh food, minimal waste, good employment practices etc. They also don’t use labelling and claim they don’t need to as none of their food is “long life”. It all gets consumed (one way or another) on the day it’s made. All Pret shops emphasis their green credentials. They even make small practical changes to the retail experience too, like not putting paper napkins out, rather they ask you if you would like a napkin or a bag at the point of sale. No assumption made that you need one. The same can’t be said for all food and Coffee shops here in London. R

  3. Pingback: “Marks It Down Spencer” OR “Pret a Donate”: Which has a more sustainable practice? | greenbee1

  4. hotelchocam says:

    Recently, Pret a Manger announced a new promotion on the laurels of its recent record profits which might possibly raise questions of fairness and equity if not implemented cautiously. Interestingly, the business didn’t want to invest in a complicated “loyalty cards” program, so “Chief executive Clive Schlee said he has given staff the power to hand out free drinks or food to the customers they like best – or would like to take home.” Basically, staff seem to have to give away a certain number of hot drinks and food every week, which would amount to about 28% of customers getting something free (that is, unless a smaller subset of customers get repeat free products). Whilst a loyalty cards program is more regimented, the objectivity of that structure might also provide Pret a Manger with certain protections from potential allegations of discrimination. Of course, this may depend on what criteria staffers use to make their distributions of free products and whether the market has many litigious individuals. The business may need to keep a running inventory of their free give-aways, recipients, and rationales to avoid allegations of inequitable or unfair treatment. http://www.standard.co.uk/news/london/pret-a-manger-staff-give-free-coffee-to-their-favourite-customers-sandwich-chain-boss-reveals-10191611.html

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