Backing the Future


M&S' Mike Barry and Lucy Calver discuss some of the important lessons the retailer has learned since it moved away from a CSR approach and started implementing its 'Plan A' strategy in 2006l

Sustainability will be a key issue over the next decade, shaping government policy, business strategy and how we live our lives.

As the world's population grows by billions and the Western way of consumption is adopted by hundreds of millions of people in the developing world, we are running out of the basics - trees, clean water, farmland and so on. Meanwhile, we are driving changes to our climate at a rate not seen for many thousands of years.

So, what has all this got to do with marketing? First, businesses will have to adapt to this challenge, telling stories about the sustainable products and services they will be developing. Moreover, we believe that communication, even more than technology, is the key to building a sustainable future.

To illustrate why, we're going to share five key lessons from M&S' sustainability journey. It is important to stress the word 'journey', as no business in the world can claim to have come remotely close to sustainability.

The first lesson is not unique to M&S. Many global businesses, including Nike, Unilever and Google, have recognised that the days of corporate social responsibility (CSR) are over.

CSR was all about managing a few sensitive areas that had the potential to generate positive or negative headlines. To be a credible player today, however, you have to understand all the social and environmental issues that are relevant to your business.

To tackle these, you need a clear business case, commitment from the top and alignment throughout the ranks. This covers not only your own operations, but also your supply chain and the way your customers use your products.

In 2006, M&S recognised that it needed to start working systemically to make its business more sustainable by addressing the social and environmental issues on which it had an impact. These span our supply chains (thousands of factories and farms), our own operations (hundreds of stores and lorries) and the use of the millions of products we sell each year. M&S then made 100 commitments related to these issues.

Lesson number two: we did not call this approach 'the M&S' sustainability plan'. We gave it instead the much more memorable name 'Plan A' - because there is no Plan B when it comes to saving the planet. We hit on the name only two weeks before launch, when our then head of internal communication, Robert Nuttall, raised the concern that we had a great idea but no inspiration. Our communications teams developed the Plan A brand and, in one fell swoop, our task was made much easier.

Internally, Plan A has been a powerful change brand, helping 75,000 M&S employees and 2000 suppliers to see the links between activities as disparate as taking trans fats out of food, reducing energy use and promoting Fairtrade. …

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