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In 2007 we launched Plan A (because there is no Plan B for the one Planet we have) - 100, bold, time bound social and environmental commitments intended to improve substantially our business. Over the last 8 years we’ve delivered these and many other commitments, with a handful missed or delivered late. 

Launching Plan A was bold. We didn’t have all the answers. We didn’t know exactly where it would take us. But despite this uncertainty we were clear that we had to change. We had to find a better way of using resources, managing waste and demonstrating our social legitimacy. All we could be sure of was that business as usual was not an option. There literally weren’t enough fish in the sea to satisfy the world’s growing consumption needs. We had to strike out in a new direction, one that strove to balance the needs of all – our customers, employees, shareholders, planet and communities alike.

We had (and still have!) a bold ambition, to help re-define retail globally. In 2010, three years into our Plan A journey we crystallised this ambition with a bold goal, to be the world’s most sustainable major retailer by 2015. This goal was intended to communicate internally and externally that creating a sustainable business was important to us and that we would play a meaningful role in global change by being a leader.

So 2015 is here and we must ask ourselves how have we done? Let’s be clear there was and there remains no single metric to which all our (and every other retailers) hard work on sustainability can be shrunk and compared. No simple league table that encapsulates every aspect of leadership. Of course there are benchmarks and awards for governance and reporting, pesticide use and fish sourcing to name but a few. M&S has received over 200 awards for Plan A in the last 8 years but we’re the first to concede single issue or single marketplace recognition is not itself enough to claim we are the world’s most sustainable retailer.

So let us offer a more personal view of how we stand based on 5 factors that we believe define sector leadership:

1. Materiality – Are you dealing with all the social and environmental issues material to your business? 

Plan A has always been comprehensive - 100 environmental and social issues being tackled touching every aspect of our business, our products/services, operations and employees. We’ve consistently delivered 90-95% of our targets, reducing significantly energy use, packaging, waste whilst improving key raw materials such as wood and fish with improvements across 1000s of stores and factories. Individual retailers can probably point to individual areas where they lead us but across the board we’ve improved our footprint significantly.

2. Transparency – Is the evidence for improved performance based on clear, publicly available, independently assured data that shares failure and learning as well as success? 

Every year we publish a comprehensive detailed report on our progress on our commitments. It’s independently assured showing our challenges as much as our successes. It’s supported by an independent Advisory Board that act as critical friends holding our strategy to account. But we know that transparency expectations and technology capability are evolving fast and there is more we can do to explain what we do and why we do it.

3. Integration – Has sustainability been integrated into how the business does business? 

A real strength of Plan A. Every part of the business is engaged. Every M&S product has to have a Plan A story to tell (attribute) by 2020 (64% to date) which means every category that manages their development, buying and sale has to have a plan to deliver this. Every Executive Director has a part of their bonus based on Plan A delivery. And so on. This is what has delivered the business case for Plan A. Every granular part of the business contributing to change and a £160m of net benefit in 2014-15. For our employees 79% say they are proud of the contribution their business area makes to Plan A but there is more we can do, hence our focus on localising Plan A for each store making it relevant to them on a human scale.

4. Scaling engagement – Have you reached out to help change the wider ‘ecosystem’ that surrounds it. In particular your customers and other businesses? 

This is a tougher one. For our customers we cannot be clearer we haven’t explained the M&S difference well enough. We have plans to change this but you need to see them in action! Conversely in terms of engaging other businesses we’ve really accelerated this year through our work with the World Economic Forum and Consumer Goods Forum as we seek to shape a wider agenda on climate change (COP21); sustainable development (UN sustainable development goals); and consumption (Collectively.org).

5. Innovation – Are you looking beyond making your existing business model to a radical shift in how you provide your products and services? 

We’ve made a good start in imagining a very different approach to retailing. Shwopping has helped us understand the scale of change needed, and our Re-dress project with Cambridge University is helping us turn this understanding into ideas to trial. Similarly on Foods we’re looking at very different ways of producing and consuming foods. It’s still early days but ideas are starting to flow!

We think this is a fair assessment of a hugely challenging programme. And overall? We feel we can hold our head up high some eight years into the Plan A journey and say we’re amongst the leading retailers in the world (and probably businesses more generally) on sustainability.

You may agree, you may disagree, but we think what would unite us all though is an honesty that says, we’re all still nearer the start line than the finish and that the pressures (planetary limits and social change) that demand a response are only growing.

We make no apologies for setting a goal to be the best in 2010. It’s galvanised us to stretch ourselves to change, to be the best we can and inspired others to take up the challenge too. The sustainability challenge demands a bold response and so we won’t rest until we’re a truly sustainable business and a leader amongst others in engaging customers. 

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