Mike Barry: Sustainable product co-creation with consumers may 'drive future'

Marks & Spencer's head of sustainable business Mike Barry has said that consumer involvement in future product development may become necessary in order to bring brand sustainability to life.

M&S launched Plan A in 2007 with 100 commitments to reduce the company's social and environmental footprint

M&S launched Plan A in 2007 with 100 commitments to reduce the company's social and environmental footprint

Speaking during a webinar hosted by DoSustainability, Barry said M&S was looking at how its product portfolio could be better aligned with consumer values as part of the next phase of its Plan A journey, and that this might lead to opportunities around product co-creation.

"Terms like 'climate-ready' or 'waste-friendly' are not terms that consumers recognise ... for the moment, most consumers will still buy in to the M&S brand itself. We are this middle ground to work how we engage the consumer in this journey," he said.

"We haven't got a M&S logo to put on products that have a Plan A attribute, that is within our thinking at this moment in time," he added. "We are moving cautiously, we want to lay down a very firm foundation that engages all of our people, our customers and has stakeholder credibility."

Emphasising that product integrity was key to doing sustainable business, Barry said that attaching Plan A attributes to every single M&S product was a 2020 goal for the company.

"Fifty-seven per cent of our products now meet that Plan A story. We have a simple brand proposition for our customers - whatever you buy from us meets a high minimum ethical standard."

Elephant in the room

However he argued that in order for sustainable brands to remain believable, they must be made increasingly relevant for consumers and deliver direct benefits linked to social aspiration.

"We are working hard over the next two to three years to make Plan A more digestible and localised to the life that customers live," Barry revealed. "The product is key - it is the elephant in the room when it comes to sustainable consumption ... businesses need to confront their sustainability product and service propositions."

The ultimate goal, he added, was to build sustainability into products in such a way to make them desirable enough that consumers instinctly buy into them. He added that M&S was only 20% of the way there. "I believe 80% of that journey lies ahead solely in the design and inspire side [of sustainability]."

Barry stressed the importance of seeing sustainable brand and product creation as a journey, rather than an end point. "My job is director of change, not director of sustainability. The ability to map out where you are going in the future is critical, too many companies approach sustainability on a year-on-year basis.

"You have got to see it in the context of a change programme: where do you aspire to be? How do we get there? As much as M&S is pushing this [Plan A] attribute product, it is only a stepping stone towards where we want to go."

Maxine Perella


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