What's the next stage for Plan A? Mike Barry tells us what he has up his sleeve for 2014

How does M&S get into the hearts of 80,000 colleagues and 34 million customers? Director of Plan A, Mike Barry, says emotional engagement is the next stage of the award-winning sustainability strategy

Barry was recently appointed as director of Plan A
When I went to visit Mike Barry in M&S’ head office in London, I had been wondering about the extended journey from the reception area to the meeting room, but Barry’s assistant assured me that they avoid using the lift where possible to minimize their carbon footprint.

Nearly seven years on from its inception, and it is clear that Plan A is well integrated into the business.

Now Barry, who has recently been appointed as director of Plan A following eight years as head of sustainable business at M&S, says the emphasis is to move from functional to emotional: “The journey is to get into the hearts and minds of our 80,000 colleagues and 34 million customers.”

M&S has already demonstrated that those initial first steps were possible, and now “the next step is to give the rest of the industry the confidence that more substantial changes are also possible.

“We’re very clear that we can’t make that substantial change on our own, we literally can’t.

“So a lot of our focus for the next three to five years won’t just be putting our own house even further in order, it will be reaching out to help communities and policy makers to change.”

Shwopping ideas

So how does M&S engage with people? Firstly, they engage through the products they sell to ensure that their customers can live a more sustainable life through them. Beyond that, the company open their ears.

“We never stop listening,” said Barry. “As Plan A evolves, I want everyone to be involved. That brings strengths and weaknesses – you can’t move as quick. Everybody has got a view. You have to go through this much more complex process of co-creating Plan A.

Barry’s job is not to impose his views upon the business – “it’s about making sure that people have the skills and the capacity so that we can do this together. So my role has evolved into an organisational coach, mentor, strategist, innovator, and has devolved out of being a day-to-day practitioner."

In order to inform Plan A, a contact from each of M&S’ business units gather their views from the respective infrastructures and communicate them with the central team.

“Shwopping came from that approach five years ago. Ideas are constantly coming from the grassroots that we can’t necessarily imagine in the centre.”

M&S started their "buy one, give one" culture last year, and has since given six million unwanted clothes an opportunity to be resold, reused or recycled by its charity partner Oxfam.

The company also work with those at the heart - employee representatives and the store management teams. This year, the company asked over 2,000 employees what they thought could be improved.

“As a result of sharing their knowledge, people feel empowered. Normally with corporate initiatives, you don’t get anything back. Constant feedback and engagement takes time, but it’s worth it.”

M&S' Cheshire Oaks store
Global collaboration

Collaboration doesn’t just take place internally. Mike is now co-chairing the Consumer Goods Forum (CGF) – a global platform for knowledge exchange and initiatives consisting of CEOs and senior management from over 400 retailers, manufacturers and service providers.

“[These] members are responsible for $3tn of turnover. If you can get them to collectively buy in to sustainable change, we can really move the dial.”

M&S’ chief executive Mark Bolland is co-sponsoring the CGF.

“Mark is very ambitious for us to work positively with the industry. It’s already making some good progress on issues like palm oil and refrigeration gases.”

Barry recognizes that to change the system, you have to collaborate.

“M&S can’t change the world of palm oil on its own. We are a fraction of the world’s supply. By teaming up with these other big players, we have some leverage.”

Whether nationally or globally, “collaboration is going to be an ever more important defining point in how committed you are to creating a sustainable future. You need to share learning.”

When it comes to companies that Barry admires, he has a bit of a list.

“Unilever do a phenomenal job of not just making sure their own supply chains are better, but sharing that learning – there’s no point having a little green oasis if everything else has gone to rack and ruin."

He also cites Boots for its work on well-being, B&Q on wood, Coca-Cola and Pepsi-Co on water, BT and Sky on digital futures and connecting consumers with it, and BMW re-imagining mobility.


Barry believes that the next stage of the Plan A journey is emotional connection – and this gives a lot of opportunity to social networks.

“The Amazons, the Facebooks and the Twitters – they are the emotional connectors of the world, and I don’t think they’ve woken up to their potential yet. They are the platforms that bring people together. We need this electronic world where people dwell, meet and connect to work harder on this.” Barry’s ambition is that M&S should be inspiring others.

“Once you’ve bought a garment from us, I can’t coerce it of you again to recycle it – you’ve got to want to do it. What I can do is make it simple and easy to do – whichever M&S store you go in. I can keep reminding you on product labels, advertising with Joanna Lumley.

“People are saying to us: ‘tell me what the things are where I can make a difference, make it easy for me to do, but then also show me that I am part of a wider movement because it’s a bit lonely trying to change the world on my own.’”

“If they know that 34 million other M&S customers are all trying to recycle their clothing together, the one garment they dropped off this week, they feel part of a bigger whole.

Barry says that these campaigns have got to be relevant to the customer, emotionally engaging and has to create a sense of tribalism or togetherness.

Leadership today, industry average tomorrow

The sustainable suit has a QR code inside that you can scan on your smartphone to learn more about the product.
“We’ve brought in some really good ranges now, including a sustainable suit and a coat made out of shwapped wool.”

M&S and have tried using Quick Response (QR) codes within their clothing, to share the product's sustainability story. . The sustainable suit has a QR code inside that directs you to a page on the M&S website. This includes some of the more technical details, like BCI (Better Cotton Initiative) certified cotton that may not be relevant to customers at the point of sale.

Not only is the coat more sustainable but it is “cheaper for the customer to buy than it would be if it was made from virgin wool. And it is clear that they were well received.

“They were relatively small lines, but the products all sold out.”

“To me, being a socially useful company will be so important in the future, and that’s what Plan A is enabling us to do and that is why the customer is at the heart of it.

“Whatever leadership means today, will be industry average within 3 years. So we have to keep reinventing ourselves and moving forward.

“There is a definite break point in business now where we are shifting the focus from being less bad - less energy, less packaging, less waste - to how to build a better business - better for people, for the business and for the planet.”

This innovation is key to engaging with stakeholders: “We need to show our investors that there is a long-term value from being a sustainable business.”

“We work very carefully with [them] to say that this is at the cutting edge of what’s possible – this is how we’re innovating, how we’re learning this about why we’ve occasionally failed – we report very publicly and very honestly about what we’ve struggled on.

When I asked Barry what he had struggled with, he spoke very candidly about the fact that M&S didn’t meet all their Plan A targets.

For example, “our five-year aim was for 100% of our wood to come from sustainable sources – that’s not just the wood we sell as furniture to the customer: that is our packaging, the marketing décor and fit outs.”

“In 2012, we achieved 78% - we failed. But we had some of the most ambitious targets in the world that stretched the business to the core. Last year we reached 88%; in the next two or three years we’ll reach 100%.”

So, what had he learned? “Trial quickly, and if we fail, fail fast.”

After all, “it is just the beginning, not the end.”

Plan A

  • Launched in 2007 with 100 commitments to achieve in five years. This has now been extended to 180 commitments to achieve by 2015.

  • M&S was awarded the Prime Minister's Big Society Award 2013

  • In 2012, M&S sent zero waste to landfill.

  • The company has become carbon neutral in its UK and irish operations.

  • Since 2004 it has enabled over 1,100 young people to complete placements in stores and offices across the country, with 50% gaining employment with M&S or another employer within three months

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