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It's been another busy year in the world of Plan A. You can see what we've been up to at M&S here but we thought we'd round the year off by offering some wider observations about the world of sustainable business.

If there’s one thing we’ve learnt doing Plan A it’s that the world changes like an express train! So as one year ends and another beckons its worth taking stock of the changes that have happened around the world of sustainable business in 2014: 

  • Collaboration – Business really matured in terms of its commitment not just to work together but to do it in a way that delivered tangible improvements in social and environmental performance. There are many examples we would cite the Consumer Goods Forum’s work on reducing deforestation through better commodity sourcing across the global food industry and M&S’ work to create a UK business coalition (Movement to Work) to tackle youth unemployment as initiatives that are delivering scale change across multiple businesses.
  • Deforestation – Has been a topic of hard work for many years for NGOs, government and business but 2014 felt like a step change. Not just because the inexorable tide of deforestation began to slow but because of the way that NGOs, Governments and Business seemed to finally hit a sweet spot of collaboration across procurement decisions; institutional reform; whole landscape management; and creating a joined up narrative about conservation, economics, carbon and social justice. We are not out of the woods (sorry!) but we felt we could discern a solution for forests for the first time, one that could be brought to bear on other pressing global sustainability issues too.
  • Sharing economy/circular economy – the concept of new economic models to replace today’s linear, once through, product focused approach also took a step on. They’ve moved from being niche theories to much more mainstream theories supported by a number of examples of what success look like. Yes they lack scale but they’ve at least made the leap from textbook to laboratory where they are being tested and kicked around. 
  • Road to Paris – Oh the highs and lows! For much of 2014 we looked like we were kicking the can along the road in a slow, painful march to Copenhagen Mk II. Then the China-US Bi-lateral agreement created a frisson of excitement before Lima’s anti-climatic limp over the line chucked a bucket of cold water in everyone’s face. On the one side we’ve still got 190 countries just about in harness working towards emission reduction targets (however woolly) and some funding from developed countries to help poorer countries invest in low carbon infrastructure and (increasingly important) make themselves more resilient to extreme weather. But equally 2014 will break global temperature records without a significant El Nino kick-start, plenty of stored heat lurks deep in the Oceans and emissions continue to climb! 
  • Policy uncertainty – Despite the Sino-America climate excitement generally the world’s policy system is not providing the impetus, long term signals and incentives for the substantive change we need to make the free market resilient to environmental and socio-economic pressures. Witness the EU prevaricating on its circular economy work. Business is finding a narrative that links better for planet/people with better for bottom line. Politicians have yet to do this but the evidence is there – less fossil fuels = more resilient more efficient economies with green growth in jobs and less pollution; healthier communities = lower costs of healthcare and welfare; circular = lower waste disposal costs, lower resource costs, new jobs. 

This rapidly changing world is one of the reasons we’ve updated Plan A for the third time. Plan A 2020 is helping us navigate through these complex waters and is putting a real focus on one theme that cuts across the trends summarised above – engaging people in sustainable business and living. 

We're just about on the optimistic side of the line at the end of 2014. Why? Mainly for positive reasons – civil society and business have kept the momentum going to support the long term shift towards a sustainable economy. But also because the negative impact of inaction (Californian drought, Chinese air pollution, youth unemployment in the developed world, rising health care costs etc.) is becoming sharper and whilst global policy makers may prefer not to address them a day of reckoning looms when they’ll have to!

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