Marks & Spencers’ Plan A was launched in 2007 to combat climate change; reduce waste, source raw materials sustainably, support communities and enhance wellbeing. Initially, the plan was made with 100 commitments, including codes of conduct, better labelling and research projects to be completed within 5 years.
Plan A was extended in 2010 to 180 commitments to be achieved by 2015, with the ultimate goal of becoming the world’s most sustainable major retailer. 2012 has marked the its 5th year milestone and the SOURCE teams wants to see how far Plan A has come.
Most recently, Marks & Spencer launched the ‘Shwopping’ campaign with Joanna Lumley, to encourage customers to recycle clothing when they’ve finished with it.
SOURCE Business Editor, Kimberley Wilson caught up with Mike Barry, the Head of Sustainable Business, to talk about the successes and failures of Plan A and how M&S plans to take sustainability forward beyond 2015.
Thanks for agreeing to meet with me, do M&S customers care about sustainable and ethical fashion?
Most customers are concerned about the future but most of them want it to be easy: they don’t want to have to pay more for it or have a PhD to understand it.
Customers want Marks & Spencer to get on with the action behind the scenes – the factories, the farms, the cotton fields, the labelling and so on, while they shop sustainability and recycle. If it’s easy enough to do, they’ll do it!
Can you explain the messaging behind ‘Shwopping’?
We launched our partnership with Oxfam 4 years ago and have been encouraging customers to change their behaviour ever since. This provides customers with a solution, so they gain trust in Marks & Spencer as a brand. Clothing isn’t sent to landfill, so the environment gains and Oxfam is able to raise funds to tackle poverty, so society gains.
This year, we expanded the campaign with ‘Shwopping’, to make it easier for customers to donate used clothes in our stores as well as Oxfam’s, safe in the knowledge that Marks & Spencer is working on labour standards and other complex areas behind the scenes.
Joanna Lumley has been great for the campaign. Joanna is perfect, as customers can aspire to be like her but also identify with her and respect her for the great campaigning she’s done to date.
What impacts has Plan A made in terms of M&S operations?
When Plan A started, M&S’ operational carbon footprint was approximately 750, 000 tonnes. We decided that before we could ask our supplier and customers to reduce their much larger carbon footprint, we would have to put our own house in order.
In the last 5 years we have reduced our carbon emissions by 22% and increased our footage by 18% – so we have grown and still managed to reduce our carbon usage. Most of our carbon footprint is driven by our food business: refrigeration, chiller cabinets and lighting.
Overall we have become 28% more efficient in our buildings. Last year we saved £22 million by reducing our energy use.
We have 700 stores nationwide, a number of them are for demonstration and experiments, where we road test our green innovations. 1/3 of the things we try in these pilot stores work really well, so we send them out to the other stores really quickly. Another third need to be tweaked, and then there’s the final third that we realise will never be adopted nationwide, so we chuck those in the bin. It’s an incredible learning experience, with different types of flooring, lighting from outside and rainfall.
How do you gauge the relative success of the pillars of Plan A?
On the back of this operational improvement we then sought to help our customers reduce their emissions too.
We launched the wash at 30 about 4-5 years ago [with Climate Group in 2007], and we found that this wasn’t an issue that the customer immediately identified with. We did a baseline study and found that only 20% were washing at that temperature and by then time we finished over 40% were.
One of the key steps we took to make Plan A work was to create the role of Head of Plan A Delivery, headed up by my colleague Adam Elman. He is a very inspirational project manager. He maintains a huge dashboard which he monitors every month, with targets written in granular detail and which are coded with red, amber or green. Adam’s granular KPI’s allow us to produce reports that show our commitment to the shareholders and allow us to be able to discuss crucial areas for improvement.
By the time of the last Stakeholder meeting, we learnt that 138 targets had been achieved, 30 were on target for completion on-time, 6 were behind plan and 6 had not been achieved.
What are the financial gains of working more sustainably?
The gain from Plan A is an estimated £185 million over 5 years – the gains have been through our own operations, such as better energy usage, less packaging and fewer carrier bags.
However, not all of this is going to bring Marks & Spencer financial gain. Some of it is to help customers live a greener life. Recycling clothing, for instance brings customers back to us – the main benefit is to the customer, giving them a simple option to deal with a big, environmental issue.
We are looking to build customer confidence and change their behaviour slowly.
The business case for Plan A goes beyond financial gains in other ways too. There are benefits reputationally, in terms of resilience and ensuring we have secured raw materials for the future.
If we do nothing over the next 10 years, we will struggle to succeed, so it makes perfect sense for us to be exploring new business models now.
Sites, such as ebay are changing the way we value our used item – if we still want to be thriving in years to come we need to explore these options today.
Can you put a value on your research into green innovation?
Other [key] brands on sustainability, in the world of textiles are Nike, Adidas and Ikea. Some of these brands have been challenged in the past on their environmental and ethical record – when I started at Marks & Spencer 10 years ago we too were confronted with criticism. We listened, took those points on board and made changes where we could, we didn’t just stick our heads in the sand hoping it would all go away.
We work very closely with a lot of researchers, for example, at the University of Surrey and the Scottish Agricultural Centre and the Engineering Council for the UK. We listen to everyone from engineers to scientists to find the right approach.
How is Plan A collaborating across the industry?
Our partners are partners for change. If Marks & Spencers have changed and others organisations haven’t, then Marks & Spencers has failed – we can’t have a little green oasis in a sustainability desert!
It is in our interest to collaborate with other organisations to help build a green society and economy beyond us. If we are going to lobby government, as Rio+20 was such a failure, it is important to work together as well. No business could hope to change the global policy framework on its own.
We share a lot of best practise. For example, at the Ethical Trading Initiative, we share information on achieving labour standards and creating a sense of what best practise is. There are initiatives emerging with Greenpeace and other organisations on chemical discharge. Often, we have the same suppliers as these other leading brands, so it makes sense to collaborate.
Why are some retailers so reluctant to make significant changes towards achieving sustainability?
There are a lot of other good [examples of] retailers, as well as global brands working on sustainability. But what I think really makes the difference is having motivations that aren’t PR driven.
We simply do what we need to reduce the risks and secure the future of Marks & Spencer, building a stronger and more powerful business in a very different future.
The average clothing retailer is much better on sustainability than they were 10 years ago, so the market place has improved generally. However, we all have so much more to do to become sustainable.
Slowly but surely, all businesses will have to change. Sustainable business will survive better than those that haven’t changed, but the journey ahead is long and challenging.
What is the plan post-2015?
More weighing up of environmental and social conundrums!
Any advice for those beginning to integrate sustainable actions into the business model?
My advice to other organisations would be to firstly, listen to your stakeholders.
Secondly, come up with a plan. Anyone can come up with a plan – what organisations like Nike, Adidas and Ikea are showing is that solutions now exist and can be taken to scale. 5 years ago when we came up with Plan A (because there is no other plan for the one planet we have), very real, unsolvable problems existed.
We now have more sustainable wood and cotton, better approaches to clothing manufacture, and ways of recycling clothing and using less packaging.
Finally, I would say, lift your head out of the recession – look to the future and think how you might prepare for it. We don’t know exactly what the future will look like but we are making plans for it.