Mamas & Papas COO Nathan Williams

Seeds of Change interview: Mamas & Papas COO reflects on the E of ESG

A new series where we talk to retail’s movers and shakers about how they are tackling the challenge of becoming a greener business in an industry that is far from green – assessing organisational change, eco initiatives and much more.

Baby care retailer Mamas & Papas launched an official partnership with the charity, Oxfam, this week, to help the business move towards greater circularity.

As reported, unwanted clothes will be collected in Mamas & Papas stores and redistributed via Oxfam’s sales channels or recycled as part of what the retailer’s chief operations officer (COO), Nathan Williams, calls a “long-term partnership” with the charity.

The tie-up with Oxfam is part of a wider environmental awakening at Mamas & Papas, which involves the implementation of multiple new strategies and structures aimed at helping the business become greener and a force for good.

Greener retailing, where to start…?

Now over four years into his tenure on the senior team at Mamas & Papas, Williams acknowledges the company’s environmental, social and governance (ESG) agenda is just being shaped.

A company voluntary agreement in 2014 and a pre-pack administration in 2019 means the retailer is more slimline than it was at the start of the last decade, but it is moving through the 2020s – a “decade of change”, according to the United Nations – in an assertive frame of mind.

Year-on-year increases in EBITDA after a challenging time helps, as does clarity of purpose.

After the chaotic period of administration and restructuring came the unprecedented disruption of the Covid-19 pandemic, but when retail fully reopened again in summer 2021 following a phase of temporary shop closures and restrictions, Williams became ESG active.

“The question I asked myself was, now we have stabilised and returned the business to profit what are we doing as a leadership team to make it a better business – a better business for our customers, colleagues and our planet,” he explains.

“What are the strategic initiatives we need to put in place to achieve this?”

From June 2021 Williams started engaging with the wider industry and environmental consultants, and generally began building momentum within the business to forge how the company plays a more purposeful role in society.

From those early discussions and meetings, Mamas & Papas designed a strategy based on four pillars: customers, community, people, and environment/product. This mission statement gives the organisation a structure to follow as it embarks on a new journey.

“At the start, considering how to tackle ESG can be overwhelming,” Williams notes.

“We are all too aware about how we are impacting our planet and how climate change is accelerating. When you look at how to be better as a business against this backdrop, it can feel like staring up at a mountain and thinking how are we going to climb this?”

He adds: “But you break things down. We broke it down into smaller sections and work streams and then began learning about our current impact, for example you start calculating how much carbon you are emitting as an organisation. Because if you don’t know where you stand to begin with, how do you set a realistic but stretchable target of improvement before setting off on your expedition?”

Williams acknowledges Mamas & Papas is at the start of a long journey when it comes to reducing its environmental impact and being a better business, but decisions made last year have been a catalyst for change.

A cross-departmental team, including staff from retail, digital, warehousing, product, HR, compliance, design and marketing was formed to start mapping out an ESG pathway, based on the mission statement pillars. Monthly meetings have become quarterly affairs as the strategy has been more firmly established.

An existing member of staff, Gurpreet Bagri, was promoted to the newly created role of sustainability and compliance manager in December, and the retailer is on the hunt for further administrative support in light of the imminent stricter rules on corporate ESG reporting. A product compliance role in the business has morphed into an ethical trading position, too.

On establishing a greener strategy, Williams says: “Statements are easy to come up with, such as setting out carbon reduction targets that sit on websites and annual reports, but we have to ensure we don’t make these and then think ‘how are we going to achieve that?’.

“We worked at pace with a considered approach and now, this quarter, we will define our targets in a deliverable and measured way, without being ponderous.”

The overconsumption conundrum

It may seem jaw dropping that retailers – businesses established to sell as much stuff to as many people as they can for as long as possible – have started publicly talking about the impact of overconsumption on the environment.

But nevertheless, retailers such as Ikea say they are looking to address this in how they operate for the good of the planet.

Everything leaves a footprint, so reducing consumption habits is clearly a planet-positive move, but how do retailers square that circle when their very existence depends on shifting stock?

“We talk about the product, not production,” says Williams, who suggests designing for longevity is a way retailers can reduce their environmental impact.

“An example of this is all our cot beds convert to a toddler bed, so their life for one person is four years but can be re-built as the cot bed for a second child.”

“The partnerships we choose help to demonstrate our commitment to our initiatives and therefore add external credibility to what we are doing”

Referencing the Oxfam tie-up, he adds: “From a clothing perspective, this is where our work to be more circular comes in. We would never want to stop people from buying gifts and new clothes for children, but we have a major role in making the sector more circular and reduce both consumption and the amount that ends in landfill.”

These are just a couple of Mamas & Papas’ initiatives that focus on reducing consumption within the retail sector. Talking to Williams, one gets the impression there are more to come.

Scope 3 emissions and the supply chain

As Morrisons’ Hannah Fox said during a presentation at Retail Technology Show in April, Scope 3 emissions – those produced further up the supply chain by third-party partners – are where the greatest gains can be made in terms of company carbon reductions.

So much is out of a retailer’s control here, which means a thorough combing of supply chain partners and their practices is required to create real impactful change. As Mamas & Papas faces into this, Williams has found techniques that help.

When onboarding new brands, for example, the retailer is using a dropship model so this stock is no longer kept in its warehouse.

“Instead of delivering into our warehouse and then us to consumers, it goes straight from our dropshipping partner’s warehouse to our customer,” he explains, adding this helps the retailer reduce logistics-related emissions.

Reducing emissions in the supply chain will be an ongoing process for Mamas & Papas, as it will be for the wider industry.

Green partners

The Oxfam collaboration is viewed by Williams as a headline partnership for Mamas & Papas, but there are plenty more tie-ups being established.

Via private equity owner BlueGem’s recommendation, Mamas & Papas is working with South Pole to help build strategy and measurement around carbon reduction. The retailer is working with Clarity as it looks to boost environmental compliance, particularly in relation to the plastic tax, and it has also joined the Ethical Trading Initiative to benefit from cross-industry collaboration and to ensure responsible labour practices.

More extensive partnerships with parents charity, NCT, and parental advice group, Bounty, are all being mooted, while Williams is considering how the new relationship with Oxfam could develop during the charity’s ‘Second-hand September’ initiative, a month-long campaign to encourage more circular consumerism and highlight the benefits of resale.

Williams is also exploring how Mamas & Papas might be able to provide an official pushchair repair service, which would boost the retailer’s circular ambitions further.

Meanwhile, several large retailers have announced accelerator programmes or start-up schemes to tap into the rich source of sustainability innovation work around the globe, and Williams says the eco-credentials of new brands are more important in terms of whether they get stocked at Mamas & Papas.

“There’s much more focus internally now on this, and with the values and views we have towards sustainability we expect to see the same from our partners,” he says, acknowledging there is much more to be done in this space.

There are three clear benefits that will come of such a strategy, according to Williams.

“We can learn from these businesses because they live and breathe sustainability, the more we sell of a sustainable nature is good for the world, and due to our audience we can help ‘embryonic’ sustainable brands reach a broader market through our channels and audience,” he notes.

Dangers of greenwashing

Any talk of ‘green’ or ‘sustainable’ products is fraught with danger in terms of greenwashing, as is any public commitment by a retailer to be more environmentally friendly per se. The Competitions and Market Authority and Advertising Standards Agency are among the organisations upping their scrutiny of businesses’ ‘green’ claims, and customers are becoming wiser to corporate organisations overstating eco-benefits.

Williams is only too aware of the dangers of greenwashing and is cautious not to overplay his retailer’s hand when discussing ESG.

“Whilst internally we know we are doing this for the right reasons, in a considered and authentic way, the partnerships we choose help to demonstrate our commitment to our initiatives and therefore add external credibility to what we are doing,” he says.

“With Oxfam, for example, our commitment is not for 12 months and to ‘tick an ESG box’, this is about a long-term partnership, one of which we are incredibly proud of, and humbled by. This is a long-term partnership and one I am very excited to see how it grows over the coming years.”

So, a year on from starting what at first seemed like an insurmountable challenge, how does Williams assess the landscape and the company ESG strategy, particularly the environmentally-focused work?

“When I see the business engagement and hear how passionately our colleagues are talking about it, there’s a realisation we’re doing something right here,” he explains.

“We are aware that we are a little behind on this journey but now we are very much on the right path and making good progress at a decent pace. We are doing it properly, and working towards making a positive impact on our planet.”

Williams adds: “We exist to help new parents through their parental journey with their children – we exist for the future generations, so we have a huge responsibility and key role to play as a brand to implement measures that protect the future for the customers we serve.”

At Green Retail World, we are giving retail executives and industry leaders, like Nathan Williams, a chance to explain how they are enacting environmental change within their organisations. Please contact editor, Ben Sillitoe, if you’d like to put yourself forward for an interview on this key subject. Sharing good practice can help the wider sector move in a positive direction.

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