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Five ways for businesses to integrate sustainable practice into their operations and strategy

Five ways for businesses to integrate sustainable practice into their operations and strategy

Munish Datta, Head of Facilities Management and ‘Plan A’ reveals how Marks & Spencer, a global retailer with operations in 59 international territories, is putting sustainability at the core of its strategy.

22 August 2016


In 2015–16, Plan A – the M&S blueprint for doing business – delivered a £185m net benefit which the company has been able to reinvest into the organisation. By promoting greater efficiency and sustainability across a number of areas such as energy consumption, logistics, waste reduction and packaging design, M&S is growing its business, while creating a positive impact in its markets, for its customers and crucially on the environments in which it operates.

With natural disasters triggering volatility in the cost of raw materials such as rice and cotton, M&S (which sells almost 100 per cent own brand products across numerous areas) is working with its supply chains and other stakeholders to mitigate the impacts of climate change. But the climate isn’t the only thing keeping us awake at night. Traditional business models are being shaken by the changing patterns in consumer behaviour; consumers are accessing and using products and services in a different way and, as a result, the role of retail is becoming increasingly diverse. 

In 2007, we launched Plan A, to set the sustainability agenda for M&S. This business-wide transformation programme involves our 32 million customers, 83,000 M&S employees, and thousands of suppliers and partners worldwide. It covers all our business areas from food, to clothing, to our own operations. We updated the plan in June 2014 to consist of 100 new, revised and existing commitments, with the ultimate goal of becoming the world's most sustainable major retailer.

Here are 5 key learnings from our Plan A journey so far:

1. Set ambitious targets

We launched Plan A in 2007 to address the sustainability issues affecting our business and supply chains. For us, it is a business plan, designed to equip us for a future in which our success in staying relevant for customers will depend on our ability to deliver exceptional products and services in an increasingly resource-constrained world experiencing tremendous social change. Our plan is holistic and comprehensive and the 100 commitments cover every aspect of our business from factory to shop floor, farm to fork.

Our vision is to become the world’s most sustainable retailer and our targets are bold. Our commitment to be 50 per cent more energy efficient per sq ft in the UK by 2020 complements our commitment to source all of our UK & Ireland electricity from renewable sources. We have long committed to be a zero waste to landfill company. In 2008 we introduced a 5p charge that reduced usage of single use foods carrier bags by 90 per cent in our foodhalls. Our clothes recycling initiative 'Shwopping' has enabled us to collect 24 million garments and raise £16m for Oxfam since 2008. 'Shwopping' enables us to use the clothing fibres to produce more products.

2. People are your power: engage with them!

When we first launched Plan A, we identified a need to go beyond the traditional corporate social responsibility plan and create a ‘transformation’ change programme. In order to deliver this, the plan needed to involve each and every one of our stakeholders – customers, suppliers, and colleagues. We have taken people on this journey by integrating Plan A into performance management, providing training, tools and smart objectives linked to reward.

We celebrate our successes through our annual Plan A awards, which receive an incredibly high standard of entries. On our online Plan A Supplier Exchange, we encourage our supply chain partners to share best practice around issues such as energy efficiency, renewables, ethical auditing, fair wages and safe working conditions.

Our ‘Spark Something Good’ initiative is as a way for us all – our people, stores and customers – to get involved and make a real difference to thousands of local community projects across the UK. We've sparked good in seven UK cities so far, improving 24 local community projects in each city with the help of our customers and employees. Our aim is to connect local people to projects in 24 cities over 24 months.

All of our major store development and refurbishment projects have community engagement embedded into them, ensuring that local stakeholder relationships can be cultivated from the outset and handed over to our store colleagues along with the building.

3. Celebrate change and innovate

With ambitious goals, we have been required to transform our business operations and introduce a host of innovations. Every year we consider hundreds of innovations and prioritise these to support our Plan A goals like cutting energy and water consumption. We have worked with partners to create innovative community energy solar crowd-funding campaigns and pioneered the introduction of power-purchasing agreements for small-scale renewable energy and biomethane gas. 

We are open about the challenges we face and have launched a ‘Plan A 2020 Challenges’ portal to connect with anyone with a great idea or connection that we might benefit from. For the last two years, we have partnered with Ecobuild to launch the ‘Big Innovation Pitch’ to source sustainable solutions for our built environment.

4. Create new partnerships, lead with others

In the last nine years, we have reached out to new partners and formed valuable alliances with a host of NGOs, trade bodies, government departments and our industry peers to share knowledge and create scale and pace for the changes we all need to make. Listening, learning, responding and working in partnership is an important part of how we do business.

We are working with social platform Neighbourly to link up with local charities to redistribute M&S food that hasn’t been sold at the end of the day and is still fit for consumption. In the UK all of our properties are serviced by contractors who are certified to use FSC timber. In 2013 we unveiled a new ‘green’ lease policy for our property estate. In partnership with members of the Better Buildings Partnership, M&S and member landlords agreed to ‘retro fit' green clauses to the leases of 70 existing M&S stores. Since 2013, every new M&S store has a ‘green' clause as standard, enabling landlords and tenants to better manage a building's environmental performance and save on its operational overheads.

5. Future-proof your business

Every business needs to consider how climate-resilient their assets and operations of today might be in the face of the climate changes of tomorrow and how well-equipped they are to tackle the threat to their operations.

In 2013 alone, flooding cost businesses £15bn and over the last few years we’ve seen our operations affected by extreme weather. As a result, M&S worked with Arup Engineering and the Environment Agency to develop and implement a climate adaptation plan for all of our stores. This will be published in 2017 and we hope to be rolling out its recommendations, in conjunction with our landlords.

These five ways have helped M&S put sustainability into the heart of our operations and enhance our commercial performance.

For more information, take a look at the M&S Plan A Report 2016.


Munish’s learnings were one of many business case studies discussed at The Prince of Wales’s Business & Sustainability Programme. Find out more about our upcoming seminars here.  

About the author

Munish Datta (@munishdatta) heads the creation of the strategy and delivery of Plan A (M&S’s sustainability programme) for M&S properties across the world, and heads up the team that delivers facilities management for the M&S Global HQ in London. He is a Senior Associate of the University of Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL), a member of the Government's ‘Green Construction Board’ and a trustee of Rama Foundation.

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Guest articles on the blog do not necessarily represent the views of, or endorsement by, the Institute or the wider University of Cambridge.