Sustainable Pioneers: Mike Barry (Marks & Spencer)

Sustainable Pioneers: Mike Barry (Marks & Spencer)

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Our Sustainable Pioneers series will shine a light on the good practice and innovation that is helping to preserve our planet. First up we speak to Marks & Spencer’s Director of Sustainable Business, Mike Barry.

There are few brands in the retail space with a better reputation for sustainability than M&S. It was Mike who oversaw the much-lauded “Plan A” in 2007, which saw M&S become one of the first retailers to voluntarily charge for plastic carrier bags, and cut usage by 90% in the process. Thanks to big wins like this, Mike was named by the Guardian as their Sustainable Business Innovator of the Year, and now chairs influential groups such as the Consumer Goods Forum and World Environment Center.

We spoke to Mike about his past and present work with M&S, including the revised Plan A 2025 which pledges to make M&S an entirely zero-waste operation…


What is a day in the life of a Director of Sustainable Business at M&S?

There is no ‘day’ in a classical sense. In the approximately 4,000 working days I’ve been at M&S I’ve never had two days the same… I think if I did I’d probably leave! The sheer breadth of social and environmental issues (high streets to human rights; diversity to deforestation; fisheries to farming; mental wellbeing to climate change; chemicals to packaging) and locations (literally 1000s of different stores, factories, farms and fields) means you are always stretched, fulfilled and interested internally, and that’s before all the external work you do to engage and build partnerships for change.

What is the biggest environmental challenge you face at M&S, and what are you currently doing to address it?

After 10 years of hard work on Plan A it’s clear that any business goes through phases of sustainable change. We started with a classical ‘footprint reduction’ programme (less energy, less waste, better wood, better fish etc.) in 2007; by 2010 we were focused on integrating sustainability into business processes (every one of the 3 billion items we sell every year to have a Plan A story to tell by 2020); in 2014 we upped our game on building partnerships for change, recognising that we needed sustainability to be normalised across our sector and supply chains (e.g. Consumer Goods Forum on deforestation, Business in the Community on Resilient Communities and Plastics Pact on a Circular Economy). Today it’s all about engaging 32 million customers and 80,000 colleagues to ensure there’s a shared appreciation of the need to change to a more sustainable approach to living our lives, that change is possible and that change will lead to better outcomes for people. Then finally (!!) lies the big shift, the need to shift from ‘less bad’ business to ‘fundamentally better’ business where what and how we consume has sustainability at its core. So the big challenge is now, how do you transition an incumbent business so that’s it’s inherently low carbon, circular and restorative whilst being committed to fairness, equality and wellbeing in all that it does.

What are the highlight features of Plan A 2025?

I won’t dwell too much on specific commitments, they are all a ‘means to an end’, the end being a truly sustainable business. So key commitments include becoming a zero-waste business; delivering a science-based target; helping transform 1000 communities; and ensuring that every M&S product has not just one but multiple, material Plan A attributes.

In your original Plan A program, what are the achievements you are most proud of?

Let me pick out a couple. Firstly in 2007 we said we wanted all our wood (from furniture to store fit-out, packaging, décor, magazines etc) to be sustainable by 2012. We got to 76% by 2012, so in a classical sense ‘we failed’ but we persevered and we’ve got to 99.8% now. A bold goal, stretched us. If we’d set a ‘sensible’ 2012 target of 75%, we’d have done it but may well have stopped there, not seeing ourselves through to the proper endpoint. So delivering scale change matters. And scale matters with another example, ensuring that all our stores are being useful in their community, through surplus food donations, volunteering, fund raising and job creation for people facing real barriers to work. Finally on ensuring all the food factories that supply us are on a systemic ‘bronze, silver, gold’ ladder to become more sustainable and in doing so becoming ‘better’ factories with a lower (less wasteful) cost base and a more motivated, productive work force.

In one of your articles you talked about the need for a new policy system for sustainable retailing. In an ideal world, what would this look like?

Governments do not have the bandwidth to regulate or tax away all of our planetary and societal ills. Business needs to be much more mature in recognising that it needs to be self-aware and self-motivated enough to drive change itself. If it doesn’t, it will usually end up with last minute, ‘something needs to be seen to be done’ policy that’s never good for business economically and, sadly, rarely solves the social and environmental problem it sought to correct. So a good policy system is first based on a common diagnosis of what is wrong with today’s approach to business and what the desirable endpoint is, shared by government, business and civil society. Then it’s based on business taking determined, voluntary steps to deliver this new future. And finally it’s based on Government introducing a small number of well-thought through, long-term policy interventions (whether regulatory, fiscal or R&D) to help spur the desired marketplace change. Today, none of us (business or government) can feel that we’ve cracked this policy approach.

Fast Fashion’s impact on the environment is quite a hot topic at the moment. How frequently do M&S release a new range, and are there any plans in place to reduce the number of new ranges over the course of the year?

When we talk to our customers they usually shrink our business down to one word, quality. Clothes that are produced well, are made to last and cherish and when you’ve finished with them you know they can have a useful second life whether they are re-sold, passed on or donated to charity shops. We have to remain relevant to our customers so we have to update our ranges regularly but we’ll never get drawn into the world of fast, throwaway fashion, nor deviate from that word: quality.

What environmental standards do the clothing factories in your supply chain need to meet?

Clothing factories employ 100s if not 1000s of people, often in the developing world and maintaining high social standards in them is our focus. Environmental issues really kick in further down the supply chain, in dye-houses and cotton fields. Here again we have strong standards, working with the Zero Discharge of Hazardous Chemicals (ZDHC) group to ban or restrict the use of a wide range of chemicals in dye-houses. Cotton is the main fabric we use and we are close to having 100% of it produced to more sustainable standards as laid out by the Better Cotton Initiative. We also have extensive programmes and partnerships in place for other raw materials such as viscose, wool, leather and cashmere.

Is there any other statement you would like to make regarding M&S and sustainability?

Plan A is at the heart of how M&S does business. We are very clear that the global approach to consumerism (based on the linear production, sale, use and disposal of literally trillions of items every year) has to change. Whether seen through the lens of climate change, biodiversity loss, pollution, social inequality or wellbeing, the current system is not fit for purpose. We are determined to play a key role in changing this system, in part through our own in-house work but also by putting a ‘shoulder to the wheel’ with others to create consortia to scale change too.

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