Can we change the way we shop forever?

We know that demonstrating social impact is a big deal for commercial organisations these days, but social commitments can be quite hard to pin down, often too intangible, somehow peripheral to the person on the street.

Quite a lot was made of M&S’ Plan A when it launched in 2007, not surprising since their stated ambition is to be the worlds most sustainable retailer. For M&S, Plan A is ‘not only the right thing to do’, it is ‘the only way to do business’. The good news is that it seems to be working, and its remit has grown. There are currently 180 sustainable initiatives going on within the business under the Plan A banner – from treating suppliers fairly to being the first UK retailer to charge for carrier bags.

Of course, having the right partners in place makes a huge difference. The most effective commercial and social partnerships are between organisations who share a common sense of purpose. Take Boots and Macmillan Cancer Support – whose aim is to make cancer information available and accessible on every high street, or Orange and Rockcorps – bringing people together with a big dose of optimism for the future.

One of M&S’ highest profile partners in delivering Plan A has been Oxfam, and so far the most visible face of this partnership has been their clothes exchange, where you get a £5 M&S voucher when you take unwanted M&S clothes to Oxfam. But anyone who’s been watching commercial TV in the last week or so will notice that the partnership has been taken to a new level. This new level is called ‘Shwopping’. Essentially it’s a scheme where you can drop your unwanted clothes at M&S, but it feels like something bigger.

Bigger not because it’s fronted by the new face of Plan A, the lovely Joanna Lumley (though it can’t really hurt can it?) Bigger not even because they’ve coined a new name for it. Like other names that seem to fit the zeitgeist (‘bromance’, ‘sexting’) the name ‘Shwopping’ is one part annoying and four parts catchily obvious . But if you’re trying to get people to do something new then giving that thing a name is a smart move.

The main reason it feels bigger is because it’s a statement of M&S’ bigger purpose beyond just profit – an ambition to fundamentally change the way we think about how we shop – but one which we can all contribute to really easily. And the way it’s presented is almost to easy to resist: from Joanna telling us that it’s as obvious as recycling bottles, to the ‘Shwop drop’ boxes in store to the intuitive and interactive website with real time totalisers and step by step guides.

It’s a challenge for businesses to make their purpose beyond profit visible in everything they do, in a way which fits with their day to day business rather than feels like an add on. It feels like M&S has raised the bar with this.