For the latest report on its pioneering Plan A sustainability programme, Marks & Spencer focuses attention on its customers

Do your consumers care about sustainability? According to market research, they don’t. They just want to trust you, the company, to do the right thing, all the time. They aren’t interested in your accomplishments; they’re simply happy if they don’t hear about your misdeeds on the 10 o’clock news.

This view has led many firms to develop sustainability strategies that are completely divorced from the everyday reality of their consumers. Even as companies spend significant resources on untangling their complex supply chains and reducing their impacts, their consumers remain blissfully unaware of these efforts.

Companies, however, also know that a significant portion of the impacts associated with their products occur post-consumer use. To reduce their own footprints, companies need their consumers to act responsibly.
Ever since it released its ground-breaking Plan A in 2007, Marks & Spencer has set the gold standard on sustainability strategies. Yet, in its new 2014 report, even M&S admits to learning a lesson in humility: “We won’t change the world on our own,” says Mike Barry, director of Plan A. “In fact, we can’t even change our own business alone.”

This may be why, for the first time, Plan A – or Plan A 2020 as it is now called – has been restructured, signalling a renewed determination by M&S to pursue its 100 commitments under four new pillars: Inspiration, In Touch, Integrity and Innovation.

Under the first pillar, M&S aims to “inspire and excite” its consumers at every turn. The Inspiration pillar has 11 commitments, all of which are geared toward engaging consumers with Plan A. Significantly, two new commitments – replacing others that have been removed elsewhere – will see M&S integrating Plan A information into how it markets and communicates the M&S brand, as well running marketing campaigns to encourage consumers to take action.

When it came out with Plan A, M&S was ahead of its peers on how well sustainability was integrated into business operations. Plan A 2020 looks set to see M&S once again take the lead on shaping the difficult conversation around just how far companies should go to engage consumers on sustainability issues.

Simply reporting

Given the extent of the company’s sustainability strategy and commitments, it is remarkable that M&S has been able to give readers a comprehensive overview of Plan A 2020 in just 40 pages.

The 2014 report is a no-nonsense, straightforward account of M&S’s performance on its 100 commitments, some of which have been revised, some of which are entirely new, and three of which have been “deleted”. M&S is admirably clear on the reasons for the abandonment of these latter commitments, saying, for example, that it can make no further progress with its “pesticide residue-free food” commitment because of a growing use of pesticides “as a result of climatic change”.

The report quickly plunges into M&S’s performance, clearly laying out the commitments under its new pillars, which serves to help the reader understand the company’s long-term strategy.

For those uninterested in the detail, the report also has a useful summary of M&S’s performance up front, using tables to indicate which commitments have not yet started, where the company is behind plan or on plan, and which commitments have been achieved.

The report is geared toward a reader familiar with sustainability issues, perhaps with the view that casual readers will not seek out this information. The document could use some lighter elements to break up the tedium of reporting. There are no case studies or infographics, all data is presented in tables as opposed to charts, and images are kept to a minimum.

While this austerity is not necessarily a bad thing in a PDF report, especially one that is not meant for general consumers, it would help if this report was accompanied by a more interactive and friendly website. The current Plan A 2020 site is simply a ‘highlights’ version of the report, similarly lacking reader-friendly visual elements. In the interest of transparency, it would also help for M&S to discuss its stakeholder interactions in greater detail.

Overall, the report does a commendable job of laying out how M&S is building a coherent and logical strategy to tackle some very complex issues. As M&S seeks to move towards a more consumer-centric approach to sustainability, however, it may also have to rethink how it communicates its performance.


Follows GRI? G4 (Core)

Assured? Yes, by Ernst & Young

Materiality analysis? Yes, but no detail provided on material issues, only focused on assurance

Goals? Yes, four pillars clearly laid out

Targets? 100 commitments, clearly stated

Stakeholder input? Yes, Forum for the Future

Seeks feedback? No

Key strengths? Detailed, emphasis on commitments

Chief weakness? Lack of visual design elements

Pleasant surprise? Transparent explanation of why three commitments have been abandoned

CR reporting Marks and Spencer  csr reporting  Marks & Spencer 

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