Secrets of the Pioneers: Mike Barry

We talk to Mike Barry, director of Sustainable Business at Marks & Spencer. The interview is part of a series for a report, Secrets of Pioneers, Delivering a Decade of Green Growth, which will be launched at the BusinessGreen Leaders’ Summit on 9th November 2017. 

Mike Barry was part of the small team that developed and delivered the company’s ground-breaking Plan A initiative, a 100-point, five-year plan to address a wide range of environmental and social issues.

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Where were you in 2007? 

I joined M&S in 2000. So for the first two or three years it was just a question of getting some kind of basic structure in place. It was a business with a very good heart and soul, really good values, but we’d become a little bit out of touch with the new world of NGOs and campaigning, and there was a bit of competition between the retailers to become the most ethical.

So the first two or three years was a question of getting on top of the basic conversation with stakeholders and NGOs. Once we had that basic competence we started to win a few awards, and then an inspiring leader in Stuart Rose came into the business.

Stuart was great because he said: ‘I want to be at the heart of a revolution about how business conducts itself in the future. I expect Marks & Spencers to be at the very forefront of that revolution, not a follower or laggard. What does that leadership mean?’ And that was the genesis of the Plan A we know now.

At that starting point there were four things that made it different. It was about systemically tackling all the issues. It was also about the whole value chain and the true impact of a retailer in its supply chain and in the consumer’s home. Thirdly, it was about making sure it was integrated into the heart of the business, so it wasn’t being run by a small team of auditors and professionals; there was a sense from the start that everyone in the business should know their contribution to Plan A.

Finally, it was about the business case for sustainability, making sure we very deliberately extracted value, both economic and emotional, from doing the right thing in the right way.

How radical an agenda was that in 2007? 

There was a sense this was coming and we got there at the right time before everybody else, but it wasn’t 10 years ahead of everybody else. It was a year or two.

During my time leading Plan A over the last 10 years every retailer, every business, has had a splash and a programme has been launched, and some of them have been very good. And then there’s a sense of hiatus, and there’s another programme, and then it goes quiet again.

Plan A has just kept going, which is not always the sexy thing in life, because you haven’t got a new splash, you are just getting on with what you said you would do.

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What has been the biggest surprise in trying to implement the Plan A goals over the last decade? 

The key thing about Plan A is we have kept moving forward on every front. It’s very tempting to cherry-pick, and just say ‘let’s focus on Fairtrade, or let’s focus on packaging’, and what Plan A has done is it kept everything moving forward at a good strong pace.

I think what we have found from our customers is that they want to know some of what we do, but they expect the vast majority to just be done by us. ‘Don’t overwhelm us with a carbon label for every product or a label for every single issue’, customers tell us.

I think we have finally started to find our competence and find our feet this year – 10 years on – of knowing exactly how to connect and communicate with our customers. But it’s taken us a bit longer than we perhaps would have wanted.

Do you feel more or less optimistic than in 2007?

I feel more optimistic. Despite the very real and growing evidence of climatic and social challenges the world faces. I think almost things need to get worse before they get better. I think what makes me positive is the sense of disruption that’s now happening in the sector.

I think what you are now starting to see – for example with Elon Musk and Tesla disrupting the car industry – are some radical shifts in terms of product and service, the ability to deliver them to the customer, and the customer’s willingness to engage with them. People are buying Teslas because they are beautiful aspirational cars that you want to be seen with, as opposed to grudgingly doing something because it’s the green option.

What will be the real challenges for businesses through to 2027?

I think generally the fourth industrial revolution, the technology revolution that’s in our hands now, is critical. It can be a tremendous power for good, in everything from electric vehicles to drones, driverless cars and 3D printing, AI and so on. Or it can be a tremendous power for bad. If a robot can replace a human being, what kind of society have we got in terms of work?

So I think the great challenge for the next decade is how we use that technology revolution to create a truly sustainable approach to consumption, as opposed to allowing things to become much worse than they are today.

What’s your vision of the world in 2027?

I want people to be consuming sustainable products and services because they want to, not because there is a law saying they have got to do it, or a tax. I want people to be buying things, and using things, that are fundamentally better for the planet, not just a little bit, but dramatically so, because they are better for the consumer and individual.

The planet will survive perfectly well without us, but our way of life might be significantly negatively impacted unless we change things dramatically.

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This is the fourth in a series of interviews produced by Greenhouse PR and BusinessGreen, featuring more than 20 leaders of the green economy, from the worlds of science, politics, academia and business. These pioneers reflect on the lessons they have learnt over the last decade, and their predictions on the future of the next decade of green growth.

The full set of interviews makes up a report, Secrets of the Pioneers: Delivering a Decade of Green Growth, to be published on 9th November, coinciding with the BusinessGreen Leaders’ Summit.

We are previewing several interviews on the Greenhouse PR blog this week. So far we have featured interviews with Christiana Figueres, former executive secretary of the United Nations Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), Jonathon Porritt, founder of Forum for the Future, and Dr Emily Shuckburgh from British Antarctic Survey. Tomorrow we will publish an interview with Sir Ian Cheshire, chair of Debenhams and Barclays UK.

This year marks the 10th anniversary of both BusinessGreen and Greenhouse PR, the specialist communications agency which supports businesses, entrepreneurs and campaigners working to create a green economy.

At Greenhouse, we support a wide variety of organisations pioneering new standards of sustainability across multiple sectors. Whether it’s fashion, finance or farming, we’re always on the look-out for new opportunities to reach our clients’ target audiences. If you’ve got a great story and need our help to tell it, we’d love to hear from you.

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