The secret behind Plan A: hard work and brandingJanuary 2010
Mike Barry, head of sustainable business at Marks & Spencer, talks to EP about the successes – and tribulations – associated with the retail chain’s ambitious CSR initiative
You set up Plan A in 2007, with 100 social and environmental targets for achievement by 2012. What factors have made it successful so far?
Undoubtedly the Plan A branding itself has been a big factor. The 100 points came together fairly easily, but it wasn’t until the last couple of weeks before we launched it that we came up with the Plan A name – and that was down to our head of internal communications, Robert Nuttall.
Having that brand has been hugely powerful, because it’s allowed us to link a lot of disparate activities together. The brand makes them more than the sum of their parts, and it’s made the whole thing accessible and understandable to our staff. It’s also helped them to be clear about their role in delivering the targets.
You recently announced that Plan A has become ‘cost-positive’. How has that been achieved?
Areas such as our climate change programme and waste reduction deliver disproportionate cost savings, while savings on raw materials are a little more middling. What we’ve found across the 100 commitments is that a number of them cost a lot of money and we just have to invest in them. But then a number actually save you money and some are in between.
The beauty with something like Plan A is that you can set savings against costs and you can play them against each other. If you just had a narrow view then you’d say: ‘This area is costing a lot. Let’s stop it.’ But it’s part of an overall plan. In any case, when you’re raising labour standards how do you put a cost on that? It’s not to say the benefits aren’t just as big, but it’s harder to get down to specific numbers. You don’t always need evidence of a business benefit to go ahead with something.
What have you learned about CSR by introducing and running Plan A?
My big piece of learning is that you’ve got to put a huge amount of effort into project management.
It’s all right having the vision and the targets, but in the final analysis it’s all about doing certain things by certain times. So in that sense it’s no different from rolling out a big IT programme or opening 20 new stores.
It’s also shown me the power of partnerships. We’ve been able to do some fantastic things – with Oxfam on second hand clothing, with WWF on sustainable agriculture – that we just wouldn’t have been able to do on our own.
The other thing I’ve learned is that while you need very specific commitments, you also need a degree of flexibility. We made an initial commitment to use biofuels but that was the wrong answer and we now have a moratorium on their use. You can’t change things just because they get difficult, but you do have to be willing to change direction if necessary.
Has Plan A used up a huge amount of resources?
The staffing of the sustainability team at the centre is no different from when I first joined because most of the work has been driven out into the business units – the people who buy the shirts, the food and so on. Our job is to provide them with the direction, skills and mentorship to bring it all together. There will always be a central team overseeing things corporately, but the number of people in the middle will shrink.
Can Plan A be copied by others?
The basics of what we’re doing – taking the issues across the whole value chain, setting targets, reporting, and developing a brand to bring it all together – are open to most other organizations.
But you can’t turn round and say that just because we’ve done it this way, then others should follow suit.
It helps that 99 per cent of what we sell is own-brand products.
I believe the retail sector is one of the most interesting in this sphere, and we’ve got a lot of respect for what companies such as Wal-Mart, Kingfisher, Boots and the Co-op are doing. They’re snapping at our heels and spurring us on.
What areas are proving to be troublesome?
Our commitment to increase sales of organic products has become difficult in recessionary times, and we’re behind schedule on setting targets for food carbon footprinting.
One other difficult area is pesticides. With hindsight I’d probably have made slightly different commitments to reflect the fact that we’d done so much in this area before Plan A, and that we’re now having to tackle the harder issues on pesticides.
We also need to do a little more on business travel, as that has gone up. But it’s a question of balance. For instance, one of our strengths is that we know all our factories and visit them regularly around the world. So we have to travel more, but prevent specific social and environmental problems arising.
When Plan A is finished, where do you go from there?
We’ve got 100 commitments now, and I think the next five years are very much about making those commitments stick in terms of how we do business. We have to make sure there is more and more Ownership and innovation at the coalface.
So it’s about going beyond targets. It’s about using Plan A as a starting point rather than a finish, instilling a culture change and embedding it in everything we do.
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