Whatever the commercial fortunes of this British institution, its sustainability reporting is masterly

If only Marks & Spencer (M&S), the struggling UK-based grocer and clothes retailer, could impress the stock market as easily as it does the sustainerati.   

The company’s well-established commitment to being a leader in sustainability is once again on display in its latest sustainability report. The Plan A 2016 Report is clearly structured to show progress against the many goals and ambitions of its much-vaunted Plan A sustainability strategy.

But what is more impressive is how M&S has extended its reporting by segmenting its audience and targeting its messages at specific interest groups. For example, those interested in the minutia of its supply chain can satisfy their hunger for data by using its interactive map.

Business case

The report begins by clearly outlining and articulating the business case for sustainability (Plan A Overview). In the “Connected Value” section, financial and business modelling aims to quantify financially how Plan A affects the bottom line, the holy grail for sustainability. This section shows how the business model and the core financial and non-financial objectives of the company are intertwined and interdependent. Next, an executive summary provides a quick overview of the major accomplishments, headlines and quotable data to help orient the audience to the detail that follows.

Most of the report is dedicated to clear progress statements against Plan A goals (Plan A Performance). Organised by Economic, Environmental, Social and Supply Chain, the report runs through the many goals and commitments (more than 100 in total) with limited detail and clear indicators where goals are “On plan”, “Previously achieved”, “Not achieved/Ongoing” etc. Throughout, the report clearly notes where the company has fallen short of its stated goals, the key reasons why and the actions to improve.  There is considerable detail on governance, demonstrating a continued commitment to transparency and accountability. Forum for the Future, the sustainability consultancy, provides a concluding commentary. 

M&S’s straight talking is refreshing. “We’ve never hesitated to update Plan A, because, after all, change is the only constant of business life,” writes Mike Barry, the company’s sustainable business director. “A business’s commitment to the long haul of truly sustainable change is constantly being tested and questioned.”

The report identifies emerging trends in three key areas: human rights, approach to reporting, and the need for local solutions to global challenges. More impressively, the report clearly points to the ways in which the company is directly responding to these trends through setting new goals, deepening key partnerships and producing tailored communications.

Knowing the limitations

Refreshingly, the report recognises that it cannot meet the needs of all of its many audiences. This is why it sends specialist readers elsewhere. Those deeply interested in strategy are directed to the Plan A home page, a high level entry point and hub for information organised by “Our Stories”, “Get Involved” and “Our Approach”. Key challenges are addressed via a dedicated website, while regular updates are presented in a quarterly newsletter. For KPIs and key risks, the reader is redirected to the annual report – which demonstrates how integrated sustainability is in business. A separate website provides regular updates on how M&S is quantifying the impacts of its partnerships.

The two most impressive pieces in the M&S ecosystem are the inaugural Human Rights report and the interactive M&S Supplier map. The latter, in particular, demonstrates transparency at a level rarely seen, particularly in the retail sector.

One complaint: if the report is to act as a hub to direct readers to the information they want, the links have to work and be well maintained.  

But the intentions are good, the reporting strategy sound and the company’s respect for its many audiences cannot be faulted. Let’s hope, as Britain withdraws from Europe, that the company’s success in sustainability helps improve the business prospects of this fading British institution.


CSR  sustainability  supply chain  Human rights  sustainable business  ecosystem  strategy 

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