Mike Barry – Marks and Spencer’s Plan A programme: translating science into meaningful action

At first glance, the food and clothing on offer in the aisles of Marks and Spencer give little indication of the company’s sustainability strategy. But look closer and some clues are revealed: the name of the farmer can be seen on the chicken he has supplied; the forks available to eat a take away salad are now wood rather than plastic; more meals using plant-based meat alternatives are on the shelves. These developments have their origins in Plan A, the company’s programme for creating long-term sustainable business value. And if you were wondering, there is no Plan B (as there is no Plan B for the one planet we’ve got).

The Director of Plan A and Sustainable Business at M&S is Mike Barry. He was on the team that in 2007 developed and delivered the original ground-breaking Plan A programme, then a five year plan addressing a wide range of environmental and social issues. The latest iteration (Plan A 2025) sets 100 bold new targets to tackle five big issues – climate change, waste, resources, fair partnerships, and health. Mike’s presentation gives us a unique insight into how a commercial business can raise its operation to a more sustainable level within the constraints of a competitive retail environment. It also reveals Mike as a man of great determination and drive, conversant with environmental, social and technological trends and dedicated to bringing about positive change.

Marks and Spencer is different from many other retailers as 98% of what it sells is on its own private label. This gives the company more control over its supply chains and the environmental and social profiles of the 3bn items it sells annually to its 32m customers. According to Mike Barry, changes implemented in the last ten years have made “M&S a little less bad” but he is under no illusions that this is enough. The scale and urgency of the climate crisis, generation of plastic wastes, loss of biodiversity and prevalence of forced labour show that the “current business model is bad for the planet” and radical action is needed to change it.

At times Mike’s sense of frustration is almost palpable but so is his conviction that pursuing opportunities in collaboration with other organizations is key. Coordinated action across the Consumer Goods Forum, whose members have a total turnover of $3tn/a, is the way to bring about meaningful change across the retail sector. Over the last twelve years, Mike Barry’s ambitions for sustainability at M&S have only just begun to be realised. He summarises what he has learnt in the last two slides, entitled “What we need to do differently as corporations” and “What we need to do differently as leaders”. Together they represent a blueprint to facilitate sustainability in an organisation irrespective of its size, nature or aims. If you want to start a discussion about sustainability at your workplace, you could do a lot worse than handing out hardcopies of these slides at a staff meeting to begin your process of “translating science into meaningful action”.

Mike’s SEI talk can be viewed in the YouTube player below

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OpmzYK4DR8k]
You can keep up to date with current developments at on the Marks and Spencer website.

Dr John Maskall
Visiting Teaching Fellow in Environmental Science
University of Plymouth



1 response to Mike Barry – Marks and Spencer’s Plan A programme: translating science into meaningful action

  1. Nick Turnbull says:

    Mike Barry’s aims and the philosophy of M & S are clearly highly laudable and are surely making a significant contribution in all five key areas identified in Plan A 2025. The critical challenge is undoubtedly how to replicate such noble aims on a mass scale. Consumer spending is inevitably driven to a large extent by price and I suspect, given a choice between spending less or supporting the above five noble aims, most individuals would sadly opt for the former. Therefore, it seems to me, the field of play needs to be levelled by a system of subsidies implemented at a governmental level funded by tax revenues. Cross-party support may be essential for such a proposal to see the light of day.

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