A groundbreaking Plan of Action Article icon

A Seven years after its launch, Marks & Spencer's Plan A is as ambitious as ever with new commitments and targets

To the customers, it appears an ordinary Frisbee, with speckles of colours sprinkled across its surface. But to the assistants who sell the plastic item in six coastal branches of Marks & Spencer, it represents so much more. The Frisbee is formed from the plastic waste that they and their colleagues cleared from six local beaches last year as part of the retailer’s annual Big Beach Clean-Up.

The week-long initiative, which is part of Marks & Spencer’s groundbreaking Plan A programme, involves employees, customers and Marine Conservation Society volunteers.

This year’s Big Beach Clean-Up involved 140 beaches and canals, 7,776 volunteers and cleared 25 tonnes of rubbish, including 10,000 cotton buds, a plastic leg, two motorbikes, a set of false teeth and a breast implant.

In an effort to see if it was possible to re-use the waste, plastic collected from six beaches last year was segregated, cleaned and reprocessed by a Salford-based specialist factory into production ready, recycled material. Turning that into Frisbees was corporate PR manager Daniel Himsworth’s idea during a brainstorming exercise.

Mike Barry, director of Plan A environment and ethical programme, describes the Frisbee as ‘Plan A in action’, where the retailer has managed to transform waste into a brand new product.

But the Frisbees, made from 88 kilogrammes of recycled plastic, represent the tip of the iceberg. It was a short-run, fun product line. The key to the success of the initiative long-term is to create a product made from the waste plastic that can be manufactured at scale, and sold across all 800 of the retailer’s stores. So this year, specialists accompanied the volunteers to assess the waste and develop a plan that, going forward, will make sure that their efforts generate more than just clean beaches. It is bringing the circular economy, whereby effectively everything that is taken out of the environment is put back in, to life.

It is this focus on exploring new aspects of sustainability that marks the next stage of Plan A. It is why Barry sits at a meeting table in his office in London’s Paddington Basin that is made from recycled Marks & Spencer waste, such as old coffee grounds, acrylic, hangers and display equipment. There is an element of trial and error to find products that can be made in large volumes.

Marks & Spencer has already trialled sustainable suits, complete with Quick Response codes encouraging customers to uncover their environmentally friendly elements, such as the use of Better Cotton Initiative certified cotton, and coats made out of Shwopped wool. In other words, coats made from the wool of unwanted clothing brought into the stores by customers as part of the retailer’s Shwopping partnership with Oxfam, to prevent disused garments going to landfill, which is fronted by Joanna Lumley.

The donated clothes are either sold by Oxfam, forwarded to those who need them in the Third World or have their fibres recycled to make new materials to be used in new clothes. None add to the 500,000 tonnes of clothing currently sent to landfill every year.

‘We are entering the third phase of Plan A – Plan A 2020 – where we are considering the bigger challenges of being a sustainable business,’ explains Barry. ‘It is where, if we are to run a responsible, sustainable retailer, everything we do must have a purpose. With Shwopping, we are starting to find ways to recycle used clothing.’ A two-year project with the University of Cambridge is underway, looking at ways to increase the volume and value of textile recovery.

The retailer is moving the focus of Plan A away from creating a business that is less bad – using less energy, packaging and waste – to building a business that is genuinely better for all stakeholders and the environment. It is where partnerships with external organisations, including other retailers, play a vital role. For example, Marks & Spencer has teamed up with Somerset County Council Waste Partnership to offer kerbside collections. ‘We’re being innovative,’ says Barry. ‘We are looking for old packaging that we can reuse.’ Last year, this partnership yielded 14,600 tonnes of used packaging that was recycled by Marks & Spencer and used in the production of 13 different types of M&S Food packaging. It is currently in talks with Kent about a similar initiative. For cash-strapped councils, the partnership helps fund refuse collections that might otherwise be under threat.

It is seven years since the launch of Plan A. Like many other businesses, Marks & Spencer had gone through the cycle of philanthropy in the 1970s, through to a plethora of community initiatives in the 1980s and a corporate social responsibility strategy in the 1990s.

Doing good as well as business was part of its heritage – in the 1930s, the retailer provided hot meals for staff – but in 2006, its former chief executive Stuart Rose (who was awarded a peerage last month) set a challenge for a team, led by Barry, to create a blueprint for a responsible business that would lead the agenda for the retail sector going forward.

‘Stuart was inspired by Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth [the Oscar winning documentary that told the story of global warming via a slide show],’ says Barry. ‘At the time, [when it came to sustainable businesses], the spotlight was on Bodyshop, the Co-op and fast moving consumer goods companies. But Stuart wanted us to win in this space.’ Rose’s successor, Marc Bolland, is similarly supportive.

Rose gave the team three months, and Barry was in no doubt about his future at Marks & Spencer if they were to come up empty-handed.

Luckily, they didn’t. Their sustainable business plan included 100 commitments to be achieved within five years. These ranged from reducing water consumption in Marks & Spencer’s buildings, ensuring all product lines carried at least one sustainable or ethical quality and targets for recycling.

To achieve its goal, however, Marks & Spencer needed to inspire its 80,000 employees to get involved with its project. The answer was the name – Plan A – which came to the retailer’s former head of internal communications Robert Nuttall and his colleague Clair Foster, after they complained that ‘The Marks & Spencer Sustainability Plan’ would not excite their colleagues. Plan A, with the added strapline Because there is no Plan B, grabbed their attention.

‘Communications professionals were at the heart of this programme from the very start,’ says Barry. Plan A could not be ‘sold’ to customers unless it had the wholehearted support of Marks & Spencer’s employees. The technical elements of the programme were simplified to resonate with staff, grouping the 100 commitments into five pillars – carbon neutrality, zero landfill, sustainable sourcing, ethical trading and healthier customer and employee lifestyles. The themes brought the retailer’s brand values to life. ‘It was about creating an emotional engagement,’ he explains. ‘It is about them buying into the Plan, and understanding the changes it meant. It was about systematically reducing our social and environmental footprint.’

Such was the staff enthusiasm for Plan A – turning off lights, recycling waste materials, asking customers if they really needed that hanger – that, within the first year, the programme led to such unexpected financial savings that the auditors double-checked their own figures. For example, adopting LED lighting in stores slashed electricity bills, as expected, but also reduced the need for air conditioning, which had not been. ‘The financial results made the business case for our concept,’ agrees Barry. Numbers, not plans, were what the finance director and shareholders initially understood.

To date, Plan A has generated £465 million of net benefits, which have been reinvested in the business, including £145 million last year. And 94 of the 100 commitments were achieved by 2012.

The second phase, which launched in 2010 with 80 new commitments, involved ‘embedding Plan A into the business plan’, says Barry, to ensure that it wasn’t just seen as a niche project managed by the sustainability gurus in head office, or as he says ‘100 people with clipboards’, but was instead embraced across the whole company, from staff on the tills to suppliers to product developers. It was also about getting customers involved, by telling the story of Fairtrade or highlighting that only free-range eggs were used in all products. Plan A champions were introduced across the business. A small fund was launched to seed small-scale experimentation and pilot schemes, which again reaped unforeseen benefits.

A change in dairy herds’ feeding regime, which was initially aimed at cutting methane and CO2 emissions, unexpectedly led to a reduction of saturated fat in milk. The idea for Shwopping came from the shop floor.

The third phase ‘is our biggest challenge yet’, says Barry. ‘There is so much more to be done.’ Plan A is being rolled out to Marks & Spencer’s international operations and joint ventures across 50 countries. New ambitious targets have been outlined, with a 2020 deadline, which are classified as either:


11 commitments to excite customers, such as Eat Well food lines and graphic symbols on products with a Plan A element.


29 commitments that connect the retailer’s employees and suppliers to local communities, including the launch of a new set of Global Sourcing Principles with a remit including human rights and gender equality.


24 commitments that lead the way for the retailer sector in sustainable consumption and production, such as new transparency initiatives and procuring 50 per cent of cotton from sustainable sources.


36 commitments that demonstrate how Marks & Spencer is striving to do the right thing, such as ensuring 50 per cent of energy used in stores comes from small-scale renewable sources.

‘Our people are at the heart of Plan A. We are starting to think about programmes to get them more involved,’ adds Barry. ‘That is fantastically motivational.’ Staff have demonstrated their enthusiasm for getting involved in local fundraising (resulting in an official annual target of £1 million), voluntary work within their communities, such as the

Big Beach Clean-Up, and also tackling major issues, such as youth unemployment.

Marks & Start, which launched in 2004 in association with Remploy, is an employability scheme for people who face barriers to entering the workplace, such as a disability, past problems with the law or even just a lack of confidence. It combines pre-employment training with a two-week placement, whereby those on the scheme are paired with a ‘buddy’ who helps them navigate the workplace. ‘Our Marble Arch store, for example, employs 1,500 people,’ explains Barry. ‘It can be a scary place.’ About half of those who undertake the scheme find work with Marks & Spencer or another employer within three months. The retailer now plans to have similar programmes in six of its international businesses by 2020.

Make Your Mark is the latest addition to the scheme and is designed to tackle youth unemployment. Working with the Prince’s Trust, the month-long programme last year offered 1,450 young people up to 37 hours of training or on-the-floor experience every week, again with a ‘buddy’. Last year, 1,000 young people went on to find employment within three months of completing the programme. By 2016, 5,000 young people will have completed Make Your Mark, and Marks & Spencer plans to have signed up 100 suppliers to the scheme. It has also launched the Movement to Work scheme to help thousands of UK businesses deliver youth employment opportunities.

Last year’s horsemeat scandal, and the Rana Plaza disaster, shone a spotlight on Marks & Spencer’s supply chain and highlighted the success of its Plan A initiative. ‘We offer 35,000 different product lines,’ says Barry. ‘It is about traceability. What are you buying? Who are you buying from? Why are you buying from them?’ Marks & Spencer’s supply chain involves 2.9 billion products, and the retailer can account for the provenance of 99 per cent of these. The one per cent is attributable to the branded items, such as Marmite, that the retailer stocks but does not manufacture. ‘It is about checking and double-checking. We conduct regular audits of our suppliers,’ he adds. The retailer is now moving towards transparency of its supply chain. ‘You have to be brave,’ says Barry. ‘We have to think through every product that we sell, and find its difference. Today, 57 per cent of our 2.9 billion products [from rope grown mussels to water-free packaging for flower deliveries] has a positive Plan A story to tell.’

Within six years, the retailer plans that all its products will have a Plan A story to tell. That’s both brave and ambitious, and establishes strong foundations for the next phase of its responsible journey, and perhaps a new type of Frisbee.