Guest Blog Mike Barry: 5 things we learnt on Marks and Spencer Plan A journey over last 12 months

Guest Blog by Mike Barry:  Director of Sustainable Business (Plan A) at Marks and Spencer

It’s that time of year, publication of our annual sustainability (Plan A) report. After the harum scarum dash to gather, collate, assure, sign-off and publish a wealth of data we can breathe (for a moment!) and reflect on what it all means.

Here are some quick insights into what we’ve learnt at M&S in the last 12 months on our Plan A journey.

1. Succession – Nine years is a long time in the world of sustainable business. How many corporate plans have come and gone since we launched Plan A in 2007? Too many! The continuity offered by having a single multi-year plan has been incredibly important. It’s allowed us to take long term decisions in a very short term turbulent retail marketplace. It’s allowed us to build the skills and capabilities in our business units to integrate Plan A into their ways of working. It’s allowed us to pick our battles, knowing that occasionally we’ve just got to let a particular commitment tread water as personnel and structures change across the business before pushing on again. It’s given us the confidence to innovate and sometimes fail.

And the bedrock for this long term thinking? A board, a chairman, a group of non-executive directors who are clear about our brand values and expect the CEO they appoint to drive Plan A for the long term. Through Lord Stuart Rose, Marc Bolland and now Steve Rowe we’ve always had the confidence that the CEO would ‘pick up the baton’ from their predecessor and hand it along to their successor. The risk that anyone particular CEO would lose interest is diminished, it’s part of the recruitment process.

2. Localisation/Personalisation – we’ve alluded to this trend before but let’s hammer it home. The defining challenge in getting mass participation (beyond the 10% of people who self-identify as ‘green consumers’) is to make sustainability something people can get their ‘arms around’ relevant to them personally and to the locality they call home:
  • We’re working with so every M&S store can connect with a local food bank to donate end of day surplus food and also fund raise for a local charity.
  • Our Spark Something Good campaign is seeing us visit monthly a city in the UK to undertake 24 community projects with our customers and employees to help small local charities who operate below ‘the radar’ of typical corporate life. It’s Bristol this week!
  • Our M&S Energy business has been supporting community energy projects. Last year 51,000 people voted to help us allocate support to their favourite project with 26 receiving funding. We expect a similar level of support this year.
  • Today we launched a new partnership with Energy4All called M&S Energy Society, which will allow our customers to invest in solar installations on the roofs of 9 of our stores (including Southampton, Torbay, Cheshire Oaks, Banbury and Longbridge) with a targeted return of 5% per year. Good for their community, good for their pocket too.

Our Sparks rewards card, held by 4 million customers, has seen 90% of them select a charity of their choice to receive a 1p donation every time they shop with us. Across tens of millions of transactions this adds up to significant donations to each of our 9 charity partners who are in turn able to show our customers the specific difference they’ve made.

3. Integration – now the real fuel of Plan A is its integration into the core M&S business model. In part this is driven by the values of the business and CEO leadership (and demand!) but it’s also been systemically ‘baked’ into how we do business. To mention just a couple of examples. Our aim that by 2020 every M&S product will have a Plan A attribute (up from 64% to 73% this year) means that every commercial category at M&S (from men’s trousers to traditional ready meals) needs a plan to address Plan A, it’s not just the preserve of an ethical sub-range in the corner of the store! Similarly 92% of the food we sell comes from a factory participating actively in our bronze, silver, gold sustainability ladder with 48% now produced to silver standards (up from 32% last year). Crucially our buying team have been very clear with our suppliers that to grow their sales to our expanding food business means a commitment to achieving silver standards. We’ve also worked to ensure that the business benefits of meeting ever higher sustainability standards are clear (lower costs, more productive, motivated teams etc). And ultimately it’s this business case that underpins integration. Taking it beyond something to be done to please the CEO or comply with a standard to something that people want to do because it makes them, their business area and ultimately the whole corporation more successful. 

"Human rights are fundamental principles which allow an individual to lead a dignified and independent life, free from abuse and violations. These basic rights include freedom of speech, privacy, health, life, liberty and security, as well as access to clean water and sanitation and an adequate standard of living. We live in an increasingly globalised society and many communities have experienced both positive and negative human rights impacts. In today’s complex and uncertain world the upholding of these rights remain as important as ever. Whilst individual states have a duty to protect human rights they may not be willing or able to do so. Some human rights violations, such as modern slavery, are also serious crimes where some of the most vulnerable people in society are exploited for criminal gain. These are issues which by their very nature are often hidden and the root causes extremely complex." (Marks and Spencer web site) 

4. Human Rights – now as well as this strategic learning we’ve seen change in the issues we need to manage too. Let’s pick one topic out to illustrate a wider point, nothing standstill. We’ve worked hard over many years to put in place good social standards and audit standards in place to stop poor practice in our supply chains. We’d never claim to be perfect but we’ve led the sector, far removed from tragedies like Rana Plaza. But for a couple of years we’ve had a gnawing concern that we were not doing enough. Stakeholders like Oxfam challenged us to look up and embrace human rights as a whole. For a moment we were sceptical, it felt very philosophical for a business that prides itself on ‘doing’ not ‘talking’ but eventually the ‘penny dropped’ business is no longer about ‘less bad’, it’s about helping everybody touched by our business reach their potential.

We’d already developed a Global Community Programme to bring together many different supply chain initiatives that go beyond compliance but now we accepted we needed to tackle systemically human rights across all that we do.

A new more ambitious approach in our product supply chains but also across the supply chains providing goods and services that we don’t sell to customers; our own people; our franchise partners; and of course our customers. It’s been an incredible, exciting journey developing our first Human Rights Report that lays out where we are now and where we’re going in the future. We cannot emphasise enough just what a different mind-set, even in a relative leader like M&S, that we had to adopt to do this, literally thinking and acting on a different plane

5. Transparency maps – and our express human rights journey also crystallised in our minds that we needed to make our supply chain more visible to the outside world. We’d been discussing this for a while. There had been concerns. Giving away commercially confidential information on the very good factories we use. Inviting scrutiny where there had been none. Natural hesitations for any business. But again this year we bit the bullet and said we needed to act, not just on the clothing supply chains where transparency has started (Nike, H&M and others already publish maps) but also for food factories where there had been fewer questions. We’ve gone live with a great interactive map. Important for transparency but actually very exciting for how we tell stories about the difference these factories are making to the communities and environment local (that word again!) to them.
So five personal pieces of learning from the last 12 months. Typical of Plan A, all have swirled around for a few years before they crystallised into decisive action. Which takes us back to where we began this piece, the long view allows for this awakening, trialling and scaling and will continue to do so as we tackle very much bigger challenges.


  1. Thanks so much for this Mike and Felix. I have seen first hand the great work you are doing transforming supply chains for sustainable development through the work of Fiona Wheatley. It's extremely compelling. As part of your integration process will you provide us some insight via your labels of the sustainability credentials of the supply chain? @ktehwhite


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