In conversation with M&S’ Mike Barry and Adam Elman

Marks & Spencer's Mike Barry and Adam Elman reveal why they are looking to internationalise the retailer's Plan A strategy and how the circular economy is set to revolutionise the economy.

What area will you be focusing on next in terms of sustainability?

MB – When we first launched Plan A it was a sophisticated and comprehensive plan to improve the social and environmental impact of our existing business model (a linear flow of 1000s of raw material sources and 20,000 farms, through 1,000s of factories and stores to deliver 2.9 billion products to 21 million customers). By and large this has worked well. But we’ve learnt that in practice we’ve only just started the sustainability journey. That what lies ahead is not ever more efficiency, but a fundamental re-appraisal of our business model, a focus on making it a better (closed loop, carbon positive, restorative, improving human life) business not a less bad one.

AE – It’s never about just one thing – we’ve got a clear plan in place and we need to make progress across all areas but focus is now very much about scale and pace.
We have always said that we can’t deliver Plan A alone and that our suppliers and partners are key. One major focus for me at the moment is our annual Plan A Supplier conference which is taking place in June at Wembley Stadium. Whilst we have activity taking place through the year via our Plan A Supplier Exchange, this event provides a real focus point in the year with over 1,200 suppliers and NGO’s attending. I’m also extremely excited as Al Gore is our keynote speaker.

What are the major changes you see happening in your industry?

MB – The leaders (Unilever, Nike, Interface, Kingfisher etc) are all addressing the thinking outlined above. Less bad to better business. There is a growing recognition that none of us can solve the sustainability challenge alone, so rapidly new partnerships (The Sustainability Consortium, World Economic Forum, Forum for the Future etc) are being formed to find a way forward together.

AE – Retailers are definitely taking sustainability seriously. One major change is an increased focus on responding to customers who are asking us to make it easier for them to live greener and healthier lifestyles. At M&S we’re doing this through initiatives like our Big Beach Clean and Shwopping and through innovative health food options such as our Simply Fuller Longer range. We’ve got lots more we need to do, but feedback from customers is extremely positive.

What are the challenges for someone in your position?

MB – Scale! It’s the sheer number of moving parts of the business (see above) and social and environmental issues across a broad product mix that need to be made ‘less bad’ then ‘re-engineered’ so they are ‘better’. All at a time when austerity means consumer signals are mixed (they want us to take the lead, do the hard work and help them tackle a few things that are relevant to them in an exciting way) and Government policies around the world are not typically encouraging long term thinking or investment.

AE – I have to agree with Mike, scale (and complexity) is a massive challenge. The challenge for me personally is making sure we have robust governance processes in place so we know what progress we are making, ensuring we can capture the right data and ensuring we clearly and robustly report both internally and externally. At the same time we are also there to support our colleagues, to help to resolve issues and to spot new opportunities.

What motivates you?

MB – Scale! If we can align successfully the M&S business model with better social, environmental AND economic outcomes we can inspire thousands of other businesses, millions of consumers and hopefully Government to be bolder too. Plan A has a multiplier potential way beyond improving one business

AE – For me, it’s about working with great people to make the impossible possible and seeing the positive impacts this delivers not only environmentally and socially, but also commercially. From zero waste to landfill to carbon neutrality to cutting our energy usage by 28% – these are all things that we never thought we could achieve, but through hard work, innovation and working with the best suppliers and partners, we’ve managed to do them.

What’s the most exciting part of your job?

MB – Internationalising Plan A. I’m working with our 420 stores and websites across 50+ territories globally to adapt Plan A to local needs. We have a common global framework and ambition, to be the world’s most sustainable major retailer, but detailed implementation may vary from Shanghai to Mumbai, Paris to Moscow, Dubai to Jakarta. We have a particular focus on building capacity in each of our teams to handle Plan A locally rather than trying to run everything from London.

AE – It’s the sheer variety and knowing that every day I will be working on something that will challenge me.

What green innovation do you think can revolutionise the economy?

MB – Circular economy. There are enormous benefits from shifting from a linear economy (make, use, dispose) to a circular one where waste is avoided, new material use is minimised and new social connections are made.

AE – I think it’s less about a new innovation, but more a shift in mind-set, as individuals and organisations to start understand that being greener/more sustainable actually delivers business benefits, from cost reduction to staff motivation to resilience or even new business opportunities.

What’s the big focus in 2013 for the environment?

MB – One part of me despair’s of the global governmental ‘crawl’ towards a replacement for Kyoto, the other part says climate change is so important that we just need to keep pushing along to try and craft something. But for me 2013, is about business picking up some of the slack caused by this institutional inertia, innovating and scaling because it can see the existential challenge of an unsustainable world before governments.

AE – It has to be about innovation. We need to find radical new ways of operating and new technology – just tweaking around the edges of what we already do doesn’t deliver enough progress.

What tips or advice would you give to newly appointed sustainability professionals?

MB – Make sustainability relevant to your business. Show how it can solve today’s challenges (greater efficiency/productivity, motivated employees, trusted brand) which will then give you the permission to open up a bigger discussion with the Board about how to get to a new sustainable business model (which generates new revenues, opens up new markets, deepens engagement with your customer and employee and makes you more resilient) in the longer term.

AE – My background is in Change Management and Project Management these are key skills I believe any sustainability professional should have or should have in their team. Also, much of what we do is based on complex data, therefore the ability to manipulate and use data is another key skill. I would also recommend keeping up to date with what’s happening globally in the world of sustainability, I find Twitter hugely useful. There are also a range of events designed to bring sustainability professions together such as Green Monday’s and Guardian Sustainable Business Quarterly. You learn a lot from attending these events as well as making connections with likeminded individuals who share the same challenges!

What do you like most about your job?

MB – Working for business I have a genuine passion for, that wears its heart on its sleeve and whose good days and bad days are lived out very publicly. But not just making a difference for M&S, doing something that has the potential to scale change, by inspiring other companies and consumers to follow. I work with so many great people, friends as much as colleagues. And finally I get the sheer diversity – of product, country, issue, stakeholder group, solution, you name it, to deal with!

AE – Every day is different. Every day is a challenge. Every day I learn something new. Every day I feel like I’ve made a real difference.

What’s the worst aspect of your job?

MB – There is no ‘worse’ part of the job but the diversity I love can also make it a challenge to keep literally hundreds of plates spinning at once!

AE – The worst part is seeing how much more we need to (and can) deliver, not having enough hours in the day to make it all happen as quickly as I’d like.

What do you think 2013 has in store for the green economy?

MB – Superficially another tough year of mixed signals. Unclear global policy, austerity driving short term thinking, consumers expecting but not demanding change. But at heart I’m an optimist and I now see some significant momentum and solutions developing in business and civil society. The journey ahead won’t be neat and straight which is why it demands that you the reader are bold, strong, positive leaders driving the agenda forwards.

AE – I see lots of positive signs from the business community, but far too much short term thinking. I’m also hugely excited about the progress being made in clean-tech. I’m far less positive about the actions being taken by Government – lots of positive talk, but a distinct lack of action.

What period of time would you visit if you had access to a time machine?

MB – As a keen amateur historian I’m tempted to say I’d set the select button to ‘random’ and take my chances! But if pushed I’d select a time when a dominant way of life (Rome, Britain, China and India were all at different times and in different ways shapers of global thinking and commerce) fell. Why? I think we stand at a similar moment when the dominance of western capitalism is threatened by its profligate view of nature and people. Empires can always foretell their own fall and usually choose to ignore the evidence. Sounds familiar?

AE – I would probably go 100 years in to the future. I would hope to see that the world has really responded to the current environmental and social challenges. If not, at least I could use my smart phone to photograph/video the impacts and hopefully use this to drive change when returning to the present.

What accomplishment are you most proud of?

MB – Being a dad of 3 wonderful children. But I’ll spare you the day-to-day life of the Barry family! So let’s say those 3 crazy months in late 2006 writing Plan A with a few good people across M&S and thus transforming us from managing the CSR status quo to striking out on a more ambitious, challenging but ultimately rewarding sustainability journey.

AE – A few years ago, I started a piece of work with our Finance Team to work out how we could measure the business case for sustainability at M&S, at the time, we had no idea how important this was going to end up being. Not only has it proved that every time we make our business more sustainable we also deliver business benefit, but it has enabled us to learn so many lessons and also to unlock further benefit. The process is now embedded within our Finance Analysts and we update the business case twice a year. (NB – I’m also a dad to 3 wonderful children – must be something in the water at M&S HQ!)

If you could go back in time, who would you like to meet?

MB – Someone who ‘moved the dial’ on how we live and think. Darwin or Ghandi. Or the still living Attenborough or Mandela. Or just an ‘ordinary’ person like Rosa Parks who had the courage the stand up and fight the accepted but wrong orthodoxy of the time.

AE – Simple, I’d go back and spend time with a very close friend who I lost to cancer at the age of 18. It was a moment that changed my life and a key reason I get out of bed every day determined to make the most of the very lucky life I have.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?

MB – Everyone told me to leave M&S in 2007 after the launch of Plan A, name established with a famous (in our world at least!) sustainability plan. Leave while it’s still’ fresh and shiny’, before it’s sullied by the difficult world of delivery and compromise. One or two said stay and see it through. They were right. Despite the grey hair and lined face the best thing I ever did was to stay and fight alongside Adam to make Plan A stick, to make it a reality and give it an ownership and momentum across the business so that its constantly being refreshed and updated.

AE – To never wait for things to happen, make them happen yourself. !

Worst advice?

MB – None. To claim there is, is to subliminally blame someone else for the decision you made. People offer views, you take decisions. Live with them!

AE – I have to agree with Mike.

What’s your top tip for employee engagement?

MB – What I said above, business relevance. We know climate change, waste, closed loop, worker rights etc. Most people in business think customer, cost, quality, innovation, availability. To reach 80,000 people you need to use their language not ours.

AE – Don’t under estimate how important employee engagement is – it has under pinned everything we’ve achieved on Plan A. Make it engaging, be persistent, be innovative and remember that engagement is two-way.

What state do you see the planet in in 30 years?

MB – Worse than today. There’s too much momentum in the growth of classical consumption (The ‘Perfect Storm’ of moving from one billion consumers to 3 billion in the next 20 years) and too much inertia at a global institutional level to prevent us certainly entering a ‘+2 degree’ and probably ‘+3 degree’ world. Its only when we stare into the abyss that we’ll consider changing our ways at the pace and to the extent we need to. Too late by then? $64,000 question. All we can do is make sure that this moment of reflection happens sooner rather than later and that when it does we have the solutions available to deploy quickly.

AE – Unfortunately I think Mike is right. Whilst there is a huge amount of positive action taking place it’s not happening fast enough and there is a clear lack of leadership from Governments across the globe. I do however believe that there are some areas which will have improved significantly – driven through necessity (lack of availability of raw materials) and through technology breakthroughs such as renewable energy production and storage.

What do you say to the climate change sceptics?

MB – Look out of your window! It’s a flood not a shower, a drought not a sunny day, a city devastated, not a few tiles blown off. To a business person. What’s happening to your raw material and insurance costs, your product quality and availability. Are you going to sit on the sidelines whilst a new economy forms and the old one bursts?

AE – The good news is, I seem to meet fewer and fewer of them. Like Mike, I don’t try and argue the science; it’s much easier to point to the impacts affecting everyone on a daily basis. Regardless of whether it’s man made or not – it’s clear we need to take action.

What’s been your biggest win (environmentally)?

MB – Working with the M&S food team to ensure all the fish in our food halls comes from the most sustainable source possible.

AE – We’ve cut our carbon emissions by 22% in absolute terms despite the business growing (34% if you take in to account business growth). Many different parts of the business have been involved and it’s been delivered not only through capital investment and technology innovation, but also through behaviour change across many thousands of M&S colleagues.

I’m also really proud of our relationship with Oxfam on clothes recycling. Over the last 5 years, we’ve encouraged hundreds of thousands of people to take action, resulting in over 15m garments being re-used, re-sold or recycled and at the same time, raising over £11m for Oxfam work in fighting poverty.

Mike Barry is head of sustainable business at Marks & Spencer. Adam Elman is head of delivery for Plan A & Sustainable Business at Marks & Spencer.

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