As Marks & Spencer’s Plan A programme moves into a new phase — that of engagement — the company’s director of sustainable business, Mike Barry took to the stage Tuesday evening at SB ’14 London to offer his insights into how companies can build long-term, restorative models that are as much about inclusivity as they are profitability.
Reflecting on Plan A’s journey so far, Barry said that at best, the business had only delivered 20 percent of its potential since its inception eight years ago. “Plan A will have many years to run into the future,” he told delegates, emphasising the programme’s stepped approach. “Too many sustainability programmes are built around a five-year plan, or a yearly report.”
The end destination — if it’s ever reached — will likely see M&S operating within a more circular economy, but Barry cautioned against being too gung ho. “It’s very risky at great events like these to imagine the future … we need to dictate 15 years of hard work in the trenches before we have permission to play in that space.”
So, how do you start to engage on this level? “You’ve got to go to the heart of your brand,” Barry advised. “Plan A has always been slightly on the edge of the business.” It also means a dual approach when it comes to messaging. While the programme is a powerful internal change agent for the business, it will carry less corporate visibility for customers as M&S intends to publicly market Plan A benefits in ways that are more relevant to people’s daily lives.
For instance, all M&S stores have been tasked with local fundraising activities for charities, as this is where customers will see the difference — in their own communities. Calling it the “billy basics” of consumer engagement, Barry said companies needed to be mindful of the importance of tackling local issues as well as global problems such as deforestation. “Plan A is a global framework, but we need to make sure it remains locally relevant.”
Meanwhile, deep in the engine room of Plan A, there are still 100 commitments to meet and maintain. Scale is the key challenge here: By 2020, the business is targeted to ensure that all of its product lines have a sustainability story to tell — so far, roughly 60 percent of M&S products have at least one ‘green’ attribute.
“Scale cannot be done alone — we need partners,” Barry said. He pointed to collaboration platforms such as Collectively, which was launched last month, that could make a real difference on that front. “That’s where scale of change will actually happen. You cannot be a proper sustainable business if you’re not committed to changing the wider system in which you operate.”
In terms of innovation, making the transition towards a circular economy and delivering a zero-carbon operation were highlighted as the two top challenges. The former might well require some disruptive thinking — tapping into the skill sets of more creative grassroots movements could serve brand leaders well on this front, but Barry admitted that this was a stumbling block.
“I don’t think as a big business we’re able to work well enough with small entrepreneurs right now,” he said. “This is a real cultural challenge for big businesses … we need to find much more evolved co-creation opportunities.”
At the end of his talk, Barry was asked by event MC Jo Confino how his organisation could present a more pressing case for such initiatives to shareholders and the wider investor community. “Are they really that interested?” Confino questioned.
“It’s very difficult for individual business to have that narrative with investors right now,” Barry replied. “But does it keep me awake at night? No, because no investor has done anything in the past eight years to stop us from doing Plan A.”