M&S is in danger of becoming complacent in its reporting on the admittedly successful Plan A initiative By Alex Parkinson

The cover of Marks & Spencer’s latest How We Do Business report features a string a sparkling whites hanging out on a line on a lush green mountainside. The crystal blue sky is interrupted only by the faintest vapour trails and the fluffiest white clouds. It all seems so idyllic – perhaps an expression of exactly how M&S has come to view its Plan A strategy.

And why not? The UK retailer’s 100-point, five-year sustainability drive has had its fair share of acclaim. What better place to shout about it than in a corporate responsibility report? So that’s what M&S does.

This is a digestible yet thorough report. M&S fills most of the 48-page PDF with progress updates on Plan A, while an expansive website handles the ins and outs. Plan A provides a great structure that makes navigation straightforward.

This year Forum for the Future’s Jonathon Porritt gets into the external assurance mix. It’s a nice addition, but not at all challenging. This piece could have been used to highlight how a heavyweight independent adviser has added rigour and authenticity to the process. As it is, however, Porritt’s note is just another paean of praise.

The nitty-gritty of the report begins with summary pages. The usual suspects are there, and M&S’s numbers are impressive:

  • An 18% net reduction in carbon emissions led by increased energy efficiency in stores (although “adjusted for weather” may need closer inspection).
  • An 83% drop in one-trip polythene bags in food halls.
  • 84% of construction waste recycled.

Update required

It’s a good overview and takes the work out of trawling through metrics. But you still cannot help but feel these pages would be better used to discuss issues that have become topical two and a half years into the process. When Plan A started in 2007, the recession hadn’t hit. From this report, you’d be forgiven for thinking M&S had escaped unscathed, yet in May the group announced a fall in profits of 40%.

There are brief moments of insight, but questions still loom. How do buyers demand ethical standards from suppliers while still getting the lowest price? What support did the 1,230 people get who were laid off in January? What about customers shifting away from higher-end products such as organics? This is what doing business is about in 2009 and we hear little of it.

The results show just how hard M&S is working to make Plan A successful. The fact that only one goal (biodiesel) has been put on hold – through no fault of M&S’s – is commendable, and restricting those falling behind the plan to 10 is certainly no mean feat. Fifty are on or ahead of plan and the retailer has expanded 24 of the 39 targets it achieved early. It didn’t have to, but in doing so M&S has proven that Plan A isn’t just a short-term project to reclaim the public from trendier high-street stores, but rather a genuine long-term commitment.

Detail lacking

That is not to say this report is flawless. The vast majority of goals that are “behind plan” have little explanation. Business travel is a good example, with CO2 emissions having defied the target and gone up 22%.

Let’s assume, given similar additions to M&S’s international store portfolio, that 2008’s reasoning of “increased international air travel” is again to blame. Considering the group intends to bolster the international business from the current 9.9% of revenue to 15-20% by 2012, further explanation of how exactly it’s going to meet this target seems necessary.

Meanwhile, the Eat Well target is all but dropped, following a crafty rewording that sees it now read, “to maintain our position of offering at least 30% healthier food lines”. It previously promised to increase the amount from 30% to 50%. Presumably next year “on plan” will be proudly stamped beside it.

It’s not the only one to have had a strategic reworking. Assurer Ernst & Young says that in each case it “sought evidence to support the explanation”. That evidence probably makes perfect sense, but it is rarely passed on.

With this third instalment of Plan A reports, M&S has continued to deliver on most of its promises. But this year has exposed a handful of targets that haven’t gone to plan and the reporting is in danger of slipping into complacency. M&S would do well to refrain from covering only its whiter than whites and use the report to air some dirty laundry.

Alex Parkinson is a consultant at sustainability strategy and communications consultancy Context.


Follows GRI? Referenced, but not fully applied
Assured? Yes – sixth time by E&Y
Materiality analysis? Yes – a good one done at the start of Plan A is still relevant
Goals? Plenty
Targets? Not as many
Stakeholder input? Yes, very thorough
Seeks feedback? Yes
Key strengths? Ease of use
Chief weakness? Lack of an analysis of topical issues
Pleasant surprise? Plan A is now cost positive – it has now saved M&S more than the original £200 million investment

Related Reads

comments powered by Disqus