M&S has been at forefront sustainability push in industry

M&S has been at forefront sustainability push in industry

UK retailer Marks and Spencer has been marking the five-year anniversary of its Plan A sustainability strategy this month. Ben Cooper reflects on M&S's achievements and the impact Plan A has had on the wider market.

This month, UK food and clothing retailer Marks and Spencer has been celebrating the culmination of the first five years of its 'Plan A' sustainability strategy. The strategy was launched in 2007 when 100 five-year goals were set, another 80 being added two years ago with a target date of 2015.

That the retailer has made a big splash about reaching this milestone is not surprising, and in this instance a little bit of PR razzamatazz is justified.

First, the achievements are worth shouting about. Out of the 100 original goals, some 94 have been achieved, according to the company's 2012 How We Do Business report.

M&S confirmed that as of 1 January it became the first major UK retailer to be carbon-neutral, that it now recycles 100% of its waste, with nothing going to landfill, and that 31% of its products now have a Plan A attribute. All of the wild fish sold in M&S stores today comes from "the most sustainable sources available", while 257 M&S products are now made using certified sustainable palm oil (CSPO). Sales of Fairtrade food products have increased by 88% since 2006/7. 

Of the total 180 commitments announced since 2007, 138 have been achieved, 30 are 'on plan', six are 'behind plan', while six have not been achieved, M&S reported.

Also, the high profile M&S has given Plan A's fifth anniversary is in keeping with how it has approached sustainability since the strategy was born. Pushing sustainability up the agenda also involved making a big noise about it, to engage both employees and consumers alike. 

Plan A (because there is no Plan B) was itself a catchy, slightly gimmicky title, designed to capture the imagination. The company has remorselessly publicised Plan A over the past five years and missed few opportunities to promote its sustainability credentials.

This has not only raised public consciousness about sustainability but M&S's words - and deeds - have also had an effect on its competitors and the marketplace in general. 

It is telling that when M&S chief executive Marc Bolland addressed an event the retailer hosted in central London earlier this month to discuss Plan A with key stakeholders, he spoke first of the effect the strategy had on him as chief executive of rival retailer Morrisons, describing it as "an example" to drive the environmental agenda at his then company, which "quickly changed".

Now, as head of M&S Bolland may be forgiven for over-egging the seminal impact that Plan A has had, but there is no doubt that the food market looks very different from how it did in 2007.

For example, Fairtrade-certified sales in the UK have risen from GBP493m to GBP1.3bn last year. The number of fisheries in the Marine Stewardship Council certification scheme has increased from around 70 in 2007 to 250 in 2011, representing a catch of 9m tonnes a year. The number of pigs in the RSPCA's Freedom Food scheme grew by 84% between 2006 and 2011 and now represents 28% of UK pig production. In 2008, the total production area for certified sustainable palm oil was 106,384 hectares; today it is 1.3m. 

The pattern of growth in foods sourced to higher ethical standards can be seen across numerous sectors and reflects real change in the consumer market. 

M&S cannot of course claim credit for all this - campaigning and certification organisations and pioneering companies must take a large share of the plaudits - but these significant strides have only been possible by the engagement of mainstream operators, and among the country's largest retailers M&S has unquestionably been a first mover.

Jonathon Porritt, environmental campaigner and co-chair with Bolland of M&S's Sustainable Retail Advisory Board, also addressed the stakeholder event. 

Porritt said it had been a "privilege" for Forum for the Future, the think-tank of which he is the founder director, to have worked on Plan A, adding that through working with M&S "we have learnt a lot that we can now take away and share with many other organisations involved in this critical area of corporate sustainability".

Specifically, Porritt said Plan A demonstrated the importance of widespread employee involvement, a developed notion of stakeholder engagement and robust governance. "Ownership and leadership" of Plan A was spread across the company, Porritt said. "There are very few people in M&S who don't have an M&S Plan A stake." 

Corporate sustainability strategies, he added, depend on there being "procedures and mechanisms which make it possible for us, standing outside the company, to hold the company to account", and "the Plan A story from that governance perspective is an extremely impressive and important one".

So much for the impact of Plan A over the past five years. Richard Gillies, director of Plan A, corporate social responsibility and sustainable business at M&S, said it was appropriate to "take a moment to celebrate what we have achieved over the past five years", but in general he was clearly looking forward rather than back.

While 31% of products now have a Plan A attribute, representing almost a billion individual items and a retail value of GBP3 billion, the target is to raise this to 50% by 2015 and 100% by 2020.

The fact that 80 additional goals were introduced two years ago underlines M&S's desire to sustain the momentum.

Gillies was also upfront about the 2012 goals that had not been reached. "We have made great progress. We know we haven't achieved them all. It always was a stretching plan. If we'd achieved them all I think we would probably question whether we'd set them hard enough."

M&S was, he said, "very, very sincere in our intent to pursue those that we've not quite reached". Arguably the most significant 2012 goal that had not been achieved, to reduce water usage in existing operations by 20% was "only just" missed, with the company recording an 18% reduction. Gillies said he was "confident that we will get there in a slightly extended timetable".

Gillies concluded: "We see this as the start; this for us is very much a journey. Plan A is part of a journey towards creating a fully sustainable business, so that when we turn round in a few years' time in 2015 we are confident that with our hands on our hearts we can say that we are the most sustainable retailer in the world."

A few eyes may have rolled at this point. Many at the gathering in London have heard the "journey" rhetoric a few times. But M&S arguably has a little more moral authority to engage in such tub-thumping, as the last five years have undeniably shown that it walks the walk on sustainability too, while also encouraging others along the way.