Commentary from
Jonathon Porritt

There has been no shortage of “wake-up calls” for retailers. Just in the last couple of months, food retailers have been rocked by the horsemeat scandal (with traces of horsemeat detected in a wide range of beef products), and many UK clothes retailers have had to deal with the fallout from the collapse of the Rana Plaza building in Bangladesh, killing more than 1,100 garment workers, many of whom were paid as little as £25 a month.

So why am I mentioning this, given that M&S had a completely clean bill of health on the horsemeat scandal, and was in no way involved in the Rana Plaza disaster? Quite simply, there are all sorts of ways of responding to wake-up calls, and I would argue that everything done in the name of Plan A over the last 6 years is the result of M&S listening carefully to what’s going on in its supply chain and in the wider world, as well as to its employees and stakeholders.

No retailer is immune from these periodic “shocks to the system”, and M&S colleagues recognise that they have no cause to feel complacent on that score. But some retailers are much better than others at this kind of future-proofing – or what you might call “strategic de-risking” – anticipating pressure points, resource constraints and any residual risk from “business-as-usual” mind-sets. This is a far more reliable way of addressing today’s sustainability challenges than waiting to be beaten up by the next shock-horror wake-up call.

It’s only a short journey from getting good at that kind of de-risking to identifying opportunities for top-line growth by building trust with one’s consumers. That kind of trust is underpinned by consistently “doing what it says on the tin”, and by recognising the importance of increased transparency. This is a personal priority for Marc Bolland, and I’m impressed at the plans that are now being developed to keep M&S out there as a leader in this area.

As it still is on Total Carbon Management, not least by maintaining its commitment to carbon neutrality (which none of its major competitors have, as yet, had the stomach for) and by continuing to focus on energy efficiency as the single most important way of reducing overall emissions and saving tons of money in the process.

But even a retailer as experienced as M&S still has a long way to go here – such as getting doors on fridges in all its stores, as many of those same competitors have already done.

Plan A has always been a fully integrated Plan, covering the social and ethical aspects of sustainability as much as the resource and environmental aspects. One of the principal responsibilities of the Sustainable Retail Advisory Board is to bring some of what’s going on out there in that wider world into M&S. The corporate sustainability agenda evolves all the time, particularly during periods of real economic hardship.

That’s now more important than ever. M&S has a fine record in this area (for instance, see Pillar 1's performance data for information about Marks & Start), and has plans to build on this during the course of the next year.

The Sustainable Retail Advisory Board has also been pressing for a rather more coherent and ambitious approach to reinforcing the engagement of each store in its own community. Whilst the independent recognition Plan A receives is impressive, we’re keen to see it recognised not just in its own right, but as an absolutely integral part of the whole M&S brand. And integral therefore to the future success of the company.