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The Top 8 Things We Learned from Marks & Spencer's 2013 Plan A Report

Year after year, Marks & Spencer sets a high standard for environmental sustainability in the UK retail world. Its large scale and high level of social consciousness give it the unique position to promote change throughout the industry. As a part of its Plan A initiative, launched in January 2007, M&S makes a varied range of responsibility efforts, from beach-cleaning and cancer fundraising to recycling programs and organic produce.

Let’s take a look at the year's most important changes and surprises, as revealed in the company's recently released 2013 Plan A Report:

  1. The Plan A Initiative has seven main pillars — the first is customer involvement. The initiative continues to excel in this area, with customers donating 3.8 million articles of clothing through M&S' “shwopping” campaign, £1.5 million raised for Breakthrough Breast Cancer, and £690,000 raised for Macmillan Cancer Support in the last year. But in the interest of also helping customers live more sustainable lives, M&S is developing an online plan that will help one million customers develop personal sustainability goals by 2015. Ambitious and tailored projects such as this not only set M&S apart from its competitors but also have the potential to change how people make decisions, and the ecological effects of those decisions.
  2. The second pillar focuses on integrating the ideas behind Plan A into the rest of the business — the driving tenet behind corporate social responsibility and will soon become a necessary component of every company’s business model. With statistics including a 78% employee engagement rate and £135 million worth of net benefit to be reinvested back into the business, Plan A is certainly earning its ROI in certain areas. One area needing improvement is in liaising with other business partners: Plan A is falling behind on requiring all food suppliers to reach adequate levels in their own sustainability framework. Only 40% of suppliers are even achieving the bronze status or higher, with a mere seven suppliers reaching silver level — though there is progress being made towards energy efficiency with their clothing suppliers.
  3. Marks & Spencer is also making strides in the third pillar of Plan A, which focuses on climate change. With an absolute drop in carbon dioxide emissions by 23% since 2007 and a 37% decrease in carbon intensity, the effort is clear. Plan A credits more efficient electricity use, reduced gas leaks, and better waste recycling levels in achieving this goal. To make amends for what it cannot change, M&S purchases high-quality carbon offsets. However, the company has been most successful in helping its suppliers decrease emissions. As mentioned in the previous section, the only place where M&S still struggles to achieve sustainability is with its food suppliers. If this is the only failure, it should be noted that all of the nine other goals have already been achieved.
  4. Perhaps my favorite statistic from the 50+-page report is in the fourth pillar representing waste. Currently, Marks & Spencer sends zero waste to landfill. While it isn’t entirely clear where all of this waste is diverted, it is evident that 89% of food waste is being composted or anaerobically digested for conversion to biogas, any clothing waste is being donated or recycled, and all construction waste is being recycled. On top of this, the company reported a construction waste reduction of 50%.
  5. Where Plan A is most critical of itself is in the fifth pillar concerning natural resources. The highlights include an 88% usage of sustainable wood and 100% sourcing from sustainable fisheries. Furthermore, the vast majority of beef is sourced from the UK and Ireland, all of its coffee and tea is certified Fair Trade, and its sustainable cotton sourcing goals remain on target. However, per its own admission, M&S is still “working out how to overcome a number of challenges on soy, cocoa, and leather.” Based on what is written about its accomplishments in this area in 2012 (or rather the lack thereof), I am inclined to agree, but I look forward to seeing what solutions Plan A finds in next year’s edition.
  6. While I have already covered many of these ideas, the sixth pillar of Plan A covers Marks & Spencer’s fairness in partnerships. Much of the focus is put on the important-but-dry topic of supply chain training and efficiency, for which M&S is on track to achieve all of its projections. One aspect that caught my eye is the plan to ensure that all employees in developing countries such as India, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh earn a livable wage. While hard data are not yet supplied, the larger emphasis on Fair Trade and sustainable sourcing should go hand-in-hand with achieving these objectives by 2015.
  7. The final pillar is the umbrella for health and wellbeing. To remain socially responsible in an era where based on current trends 60% of the UK population could be obese by 2050, nutrition needs to be a main focus of any company involved in the grocery or food sales industry. With many of Plan A’s wellness goals already achieved (such as salt reduction in food, elimination of food coloring, online dieting websites and customer engagement, etc), the retailer is making great headway. The report, however, focuses primarily on nutritional labeling. Calorie labeling on packages was only introduced in October 2012. Fortunately, this is rapidly expanding. With plans to improve labeling, increase nutritional information on non-packaged products, and initiatives to integrate sustainability labeling, Plan A seems to know what needs to be fixed and how to fix it.
  8. In a provided commentary page from Jonathan Porritt, founder director of Forum for the Future, he discusses how British businesses have responded to sustainability and social responsibility scandals this year. For him, Marks & Spencer has performed remarkably well. For example, even after proving to be horsemeat-free, M&S has responded to the crisis by doing what he calls “strategic de-risking.” Porritt manages to find a few small criticisms where M&S falls short of its competitors, but his final take-away is perhaps the most important of all: Marks & Spencer has truly branded itself as the go-to retailer for large-scale sustainability, and this eco-consciousness is now inseparable from the name Marks & Spencer.

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