When Mike Barry explains his job as chief sustainability officer at the global retailer Marks & Spencer (M&S), he leads with a lot of numbers that put in perspective the scale of his role: He is responsible for social and environmental performance across 3 billion items, which are sold every year to 35 million customers at 1,200 shops. The company’s 83,000 employees and tens of thousands of factories and farms contribute to the production and delivery of all of these things. “My job is to make sure we integrate sustainability thinking and practice into all we do,” says Barry, who reports directly to the CEO. “It’s fundamentally about being a better business.”

In his conversation with BSR, Barry talks about the long-term vision for the company’s acclaimed Plan A for sustainability, and why he thinks making sustainability desirable is today’s biggest priority.

Eva Dienel: Tell us about Plan A and Marks & Spencer’s vision for achieving sustainability.

Mike Barry: We are on a five-stage journey with Plan A: The first is reduction—less waste, energy. The second stage is business integration so that sustainability happens automatically when we build a new store or factory.

The third phase is where we are today: engagement—making sure colleagues and customers understand what we do on sustainability and why.

The fourth phase is about new business models that are fundamentally more sustainable approaches to retailing. These are radical shifts: closed-loop clothing, or personal DNA profiles on wellness so we can design a diet just for you.

The fifth phase is building coalitions to create a truly sustainable society, since Marks & Spencer has only a tiny fraction of the world economy.

Dienel: What are your top priorities this year?

Barry: This year’s priority is engagement to help customers see the difference in terms of what we do and how they can contribute to sustainable well-being. We want to make sure that on things where customers can make a difference, they understand what that difference is and how they can do that.

We also have objectives looking forward on climate: We have reduced carbon by 20 percent over the last decade, and now that COP21 has been agreed upon, we plan to reduce emissions by 80 percent and ultimately get to net zero carbon.

A third priority is human rights: M&S is good at the individual constituents parts of human rights—worker standards for factories and farms, how we treat our people, how we pay our taxes. But it doesn’t quite join up to the bigger picture as well as it should. We need a more compelling societal vision that brings all of these many small parts of social sustainability into the bigger picture.

Our fourth priority is about transparency. On a relative scale, we are a good business in terms of how we perform, and our sustainability report is independently assured, so it tells the good stuff and the bad stuff. But we need to be more clear about policies and practices in all we do in real time.

The fifth and final component is about efficiency and being lean. There are no two ways about it: We operate globally in a very cost-conscious marketplace. Play A helps us with efficiency: Every time we serve a dollar, we are better for the planet as well. You can call it business case, or you can call it lean.

Dienel: What are some of the new ways you are approaching sustainability as a company?

Barry: There’s a trend to build global coalitions. The Walmarts, Tescos, Nestles of this world—we have to work more together because none of us can make the changes on sustainable living alone. Building those coalitions is a definite trend, which is good for BSR.

Another trend is moving things from risk to opportunity. The old days of risk were about how to reduce your carbon footprint. Now, the new world is, how do you build a new business model like a Tesla or a Nest?

The third change is the need for a leadership team that is ever more sustainability-literate. In the past, the leadership team was very supportive, but it was, “I’ll get my technical team to do this for us.” Now that needs to come from the top, not from the middle manager.

Dienel: How you are working with BSR to achieve your goals?

Barry: We work with BSR in two different ways. First, we work with BSR President and CEO Aron Cramer, who is on the external advisory board. He is great: He drives us, pushes us, but in a very sensible, collegiate kind of way.

We also work with BSR on issues like human rights and water to work in partnership with other companies to share the burden. What makes BSR interesting is that it cuts across the economy: We can work with consumer goods and with other parts of the economy. Sometimes you need to work with companies in totally different business sectors to think about solutions that cut horizontally. You can’t have vertical silos in a circular economy. You have to build partnerships horizontally and globally to build a sustainable economy.

Dienel: Any parting thoughts on sustainable business priorities?

Barry: Customer engagement and new business models are really important. What we have in the existing approach to sustainability is less waste and less water, with a few pieces of ice cream sugar on top—organic and fair trade. About 10 percent of people will buy that.

We need people to buy sustainable products because it’s better for them as individuals. With Tesla, people are buying the car because its sexy, it’s about performance, and, by the way, it’s electric. We have to create sustainability solutions that are compelling items in themselves. We need to crack the desirability nut—let’s make it desirable for consumers.

 

This blog is one in a series highlighting BSR members and their sustainability stories. To learn more about BSR membership, please contact memberservices@bsr.org, visit the BSR Membership webpage, or join the conversation at #BSRmember.