CR Leaders: Mike Barry, Director of Sustainable Business (Plan A), Marks & Spencer

Mike is Director of Sustainable Business at the retailer Marks & Spencer.

He was part of the small team that in 2007 developed and delivered the company’s groundbreaking Plan A, a 100 point, 5 year plan to address a wide range of environmental and social issues.

Reporting to the CEO, Mike is responsible for delivering M&S’ aspiration to be the world’s most sustainable retailer. His job is to work with the M&S leadership team to integrate sustainability into the heart of the business across its global retail channels and supply chains.

In May 2011 Mike was named the Guardian’s inaugural Sustainable Business Innovator of the Year. He is Co-Chair of the Consumer Goods Forum (CGF) Sustainability Steering Group, Chair of the World Environment Center, a Visiting Fellow at the Smith Centre for Enterprise and the Environment at Oxford University, a Senior Associate at the Cambridge Programme for Sustainable Leadership and sits on BITC’s Environment Leadership Team.

You can follow Mike on Twitter: @planamikebarry


AccountAbility: Marks & Spencer’s Plan A Initiative is in its eighth year now. What have been some of the greatest challenges in realizing Plan A, and how has Marks & Spencer overcome them?

Mike Barry: The first big challenge has been one of scale. We’re a general retailer with 35,000 different product lines across food and clothing. Every product brings a unique set of socio-environmental issues and a unique supply chain. M&S sells 2.9 billion items a year to 24 million customers, produced by several thousand factories, 20,000 farms, and thousands of raw material sources. That’s a couple million people in the supply chain.

The second challenge is one of engagement for the consumer. Most successful sustainability work in the past 5 to 10 years has been driven by big businesses, very supply chain focused and technology driven, but it’s largely been invisible to the ultimate consumer. The next big test is how we start to engage the consumer in sustainability.

Number three is a challenge that we’re starting to tackle now – how to create a truly sustainable business model that is carbon positive, only uses sustainable raw materials, and improves human life in all aspects. This mentality is growing, but it is a great challenge to activate it across 86,000 colleagues and 24 million customers.

The fourth challenge is that no single business, however large, can become sustainable alone. Sustainability has become about developing partnerships where we can win together; for example, through the Consumer Goods Forum or The World Economic Forum. These initiatives bring, for example, Pepsi and Coca-Cola, Unilever and Procter & Gamble, Carrefour and Wal-Mart to the same room. All of these companies are naturally competitive, but are increasingly suspending the sense of “we must win alone” to focus on “we must win together” when it comes to sustainability. 

AA: Partnerships between businesses, NGOs, and multilateral organizations are crucial in advancing sustainability. Could you elaborate on partnerships with regards to Plan A and the effects these have had?

MB: There are different kinds of partnerships to highlight. First, there are partnerships based on sharing a common understanding of sustainability. The Sustainability Consortium is worth mentioning, it is developing a common language on sustainable consumer products. For example, if Wal-Mart, Tesco, M&S, Unilever, Coke, or Pepsi rank their supplies and want to build a sustainable factory to produce a sustainable product – they’re using the same language, metrics, and definition of sustainability. This common approach avoids each company having individual standards, which can be confusing, complex, and costly.

The second approach to partnerships is through the engagement of the consumer. Fair Trade, The Marine Stewardship Council, and FSC are initiatives that bring consumers together and ensure that the brands they are interacting with share a common positive story about sustainability.

The third area of partnerships is about supply chain scale and change. Initiatives like the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI) and Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil bring businesses together that acknowledge they cannot change the world of unsustainable commodity production on their own.

The fourth bucket relates to skills for the future. The complexity of balancing social, environmental and economic value or benefit is relatively new. How do we help the new generation of business leaders prepare for a more complex future? We have to work together on different initiatives that create a common cohort of business leaders skilled in sustainability. For example with the Cambridge Institute for Sustainable Leadership and the World Environment Center. 

AA: What role does social media play both personally, and professionally with regards to Plan A? 

MB: Even though I am not a millennial with all of my grey hair, I find Twitter hugely helpful in keeping me up to speed with the world of sustainability. I am able to rapidly scan and keep abreast of a multitude of developments that shape how I do my job. Twitter helps me share best practice and spot trends.

Social media allows us to inform the consumer on the steps that M&S is taking to contribute to building a sustainable society and economy. We can impact consumer behavior through social media and show consumers why we need to change, how we can do it, and what the benefits are. 

AA: How have you set up governance within Plan A to effectively work with other functions within Marks & Spencer, as well as the buy-in within the whole company? 

MB: First and foremost, we have strong leadership from the top. Our Chief Executive Marc Bolland and his executive directors have been hugely supportive, they see the need for action but they also understand the opportunity of more sustainable business practice.

The second component is the formal governance structure that ensures the executive team meets once every six weeks to look at Plan A strategically. In addition, we have a monthly meeting with leaders of the business who seek to drive sustainable change in different parts of M&S. We have an external advisory board that meets twice a year.

The third part is the generation of management information. This had been a problem because previously, I could easily access up-to the minute information on how much M&S sold across its shops at any one time – but sustainability data could be 12 months out of date. We have now developed a Plan A management information system that is more useful and more frequently generated (by the month and quarter) that tells us how we’re performing.

The fourth part is to drive a virtual team of ownership across the business. People have to feel invested and accountable for the delivery of sustainable practices in their business area. Thus, we have a network of people officially charged to work on and deliver sustainability gains on behalf of their bosses. We have a network of Plan A champions in every store and reward great performance annually. 

AA: What do you see on the horizon for corporate sustainability initiatives?

MB: I think the sustainability journey to date has been quite a linear one. I am going to use metaphorical figures. Business has been improving 2% every year for the last 10 years, and we’ve reached 20% now. Clearly, that is a metaphorical figure – some businesses have achieved more and others less. In the coming 10 years, my contention is that business will not continue this linear trend. There will be points of discontinuity in the future with lurches forward driven by extreme weather events, social crises, and government intervention in policies like carbon pricing.

I cannot fully predict what M&S will look like or will be doing in 10 years. I know it will have to be exponentially more sustainable than what we are doing today. Why? Because the discontinuity is not just social or environmental interventions, but also economic. A series of business models will begin to emerge that are much more sustainable than today’s, but are presented as better for the consumer. Take Airbnb or Zipcar for example, the consumer is buying into them because they are cheaper, faster, easier, more social, and more aspirational to be associated with.

I think a number of large incumbent businesses will face huge disruption in the next 5-10 years by these new emerging business models that are not projecting an ethical stance to the consumer per se, they’re just better for the consumer. Whether I look at it through the lens of social disruption, environmental disruption, or economic disruption, the next 5-10 years are full of uncertainties and pitfalls for any big business who is not watching the sustainability radar carefully.