It’s one thing to build an eco store, but another to make an existing store green. John Ryan visits Bournemouth’s M&S to assess its green makeover

For regular readers of quality newspapers, it’s a fair bet that at least once a week you will see another retailer trumpeting its latest green initiative. If it’s not wind turbines, it’s CO2 refrigeration and if neither of these makes the headlines, it will most likely be photovoltaic cells or heat exchangers.

And every time this happens, it affords the retailer in question the chance to make a “don’t blame me” statement (for climate change), about how it has been following the same practices for years and that this is simply an extension of what would normally be happening. Small wonder, then, that accusations of greenwash and media manipulation have been levelled at the retail sector, because, after all, it continues to emit substantial amounts of carbon, whichever way you cut the cake.

There are however a few green lights and among the brightest is Marks & Spencer. Most UK shoppers will have taken on board the Stuart Rose “Plan A, because there is no Plan B” mantra and be aware that this is a retailer that has committed itself to a number of environmental pledges. The biggest of these is that M&S will be carbon neutral by 2012 and, for some time now, consumers have been offered products with packaging that allows them to choose whether to buy food that has been flown in, or to go local. The M&S shopper can now buy sandwiches wrapped in biodegradable wrappers – there is, in fact, a raft of eco-friendly initiatives that have been put in place to save us from ourselves.

However, it is reasonable to say that, to date, the company has never been in the eco-store vanguard. Tesco has now completed its fourth green shop, with its branches in Diss and Wick standing as very public demonstrations of the work it has been doing to make its stores more energy efficient. Sainsbury’s has also been making a lot of noise and a wooden Asda eco store is imminent.

The status quo changed last week, however, when M&S completed its first eco store makeover, in Bournemouth. Talk to M&S executive for store design and specification Niall Trafford and the first thing that is evident is that he is reluctant to use the word “eco”, preferring instead to refer to the 51,000 sq ft (4,740 sq m) shop as a “greener store”. This kind of caution is in line with the manner in which Stuart Rose has, until very recently, refused to say that M&S is in anything other than recovery mode and marks a desire on the part of the retailer to exercise modesty when referring to new developments until they are proven winners.

And, unlike most eco shops – a label that really should be applied to this store – the M&S store in Bournemouth is not a new-build. The majority of retail property departments will be quick to say that creating a store that will save energy is relatively straightforward – as long as you build it from scratch. Everything from the construction materials, to the electrical circuitry that dims the lights in response to how bright it is outside, can be incorporated within a new building’s structure almost as a matter of course.

The Bournemouth M&S however is 70 years old and sits halfway up a hill, about 200 metres from the town’s geographical centre. As such, it is a much harder proposition to convert into an eco-friendly building. It is also, in many ways, far more important than most new-build environmentally friendly stores, because it represents the kind of structure of which the great bulk of retailers’ store portfolios will be comprised.

What’s more, because ‘green’ is such an intangible concept, it is less surprising that, from the outside, there is not much to distinguish this store from other M&S branches. There is a single entrance at the front – there were two before the remodelling, with windows either side of it. Although this is hardly revolutionary, M&S store design, development and procurement director Richard Gillies, points to the lobby behind the entrance, through which shoppers must pass to gain access to the store. This, he says, is a low-tech way of avoiding the heat curtain effect, where many shops end up by warming or cooling the pavement outside a store with a consequent loss of energy.

Walk through the lobby into the shop and look up. Most people who have visited an M&S in an out-of-town location lately will be familiar with its white, raftered ceilings that expose the trunking above, which is set in a black void. In Bournemouth, not only does this look more modern than the usual suspended alternative, but it also permits better air management via displacement ventilators that have been built into the pillars around the ground floor.

You don’t have to look closely to see the messages that have been placed around the store, telling shoppers why this shop is different and how it is cleaner, greener and more sustainable. This is hardly surprising when you look around. There is no visible difference between this and any other branch, but changes have been made everywhere.

A fair amount of the display equipment in the middle of the floor is not standard M&S store furniture, although it looks the same. A display unit with women’s leather vanity boxes, for example, has white shelves made from something called Envirowall, which is a more sustainable and considerably more robust material than the MDF that is normally used. Elsewhere in the store, shelves are concave on the underside, manufactured in the same way as a plastic bucket. Not only will they last longer, according to Gillies, but they are simpler to maintain and easier to recycle when they reach the end of their useful life.

Head away from womenswear, which dominates the ground floor and you are directed towards the food hall by an illuminated Barrisol strip overhead. Among a host of new features in this area, M&S has installed CO_ chillers and freezers. The upright, sealed CO_ freezer cabinets are internally lit by strips of LED lights, which means lower energy consumption, without compromising lighting levels.

On a general note, Gillies points out that the level of ambient light throughout the shop is lower than in other M&S stores, but it’s hard to see a difference. Even the graphics, complete with food porn, that are such a selling point of the new-look M&S interiors, are printed on honeycombed Xantia boards that can be taken down quickly and reused. Upstairs, it’s the same story: a good-looking shop, with an equally good-looking, new-format M&S café, but it is no different, seemingly, from any other store.

A walk out onto the roof however gets Gillies and sustainability manager Crispin Burridge going. They point out the suntraps – prismatic domes that funnel light into the store’s interior – cutting down on the need for artificial light. And behind the super-efficient new heating and cooling systems is a surprise: a large section of the roof is covered in plants that soak up airborne pollutants, as well as contribute to a greener environment.

The question has to be what level of difference will the store make for Bournemouth? Gillies says that in-store energy use will be cut by 25 per cent as a direct result of the power-saving measures that have been put in place. There will also be a 92 per cent reduction in the store’s carbon footprint. He observes that the design of the store’s structure is sustainable. The average cost per square foot of modernising any M&S store is about£100. Bournemouth has cost no more to carry out. A supplementary question is, therefore, why isn’t M&S doing a Bournemouth in every branch that it builds or refurbishes?

The retailer is set to open two more green stores later this month, in Galashiels, on the Scottish borders and Pollok, in Glasgow. “What we want to be able to do is take what we have learnt from Bournemouth and be able to apply it,” says Gillies. “One of the objectives we have is sustainability and, therefore, a green store has to be economically sustainable,” he adds.

By the end of this year, M&S will have about 30 per cent of its stores left to modernise. Gillies hopes that much of what has been implemented in Bournemouth will find its way into these branches. And it is likely that nobody will really notice – which should ensure that any accusations of tokenism or greenwash do not affect Marks & Spencer as it heads towards 2012.