Mainstream Financial Markets Will Become a Significant Source of Pressure on Business to Change

1. Which are the main pillars of your CSR and Sustainability strategy?

Since 1884, M&S has grown from a single market stall to become a sustainable, international multi-channel retailer. We now operate in over 50 territories worldwide and employ almost 86,000 people.Plan A, called because we do think there is no Plan B for our one planet, is our ground-breaking eco/ethical plan. We started our Plan A journey nine years ago and aim to tackle all of the environmental, social and ethical issues across our whole value chain.We recently updated our plan (Plan A 2020) with around 100 targets and we are focussed on engaging with millions of customers, nearly 86,000 employees and 1,000s of other businesses by making Plan A the way we do business through inspiration, being in touch, integrity and innovation, as we build towards our long term goal of being a truly sustainable retailer.

2. What have been some of the greatest challenges in realising your CSR and Sustainability goals in the past year, and how has your company overcome them?

We generally have two main challenges:

Firstly, the sheer diversity of issues that we are trying to tackle, from packaging reduction to deforestation; climate change to labour standards; fish sourcing to supporting communities. We sell around 2.7 billion individual products each year that comes from several thousand factories, farms and raw material sources. As such, we’ve put in place clear targets and governance to ensure we can track our progress across all these issues.

Secondly, it’s about how we do things at scale and at pace. As such, it’s important we work with others to achieve the progress required. We have always worked very closely with our own people and our suppliers, but we are now working with a range of cross sector groups, for example, M&S co-chairs the Consumer Goods Forum Sustainability Steering Group which consists of some of the world’s largest retailers and FMCG companies and has led to significant progress on issues such as refrigeration and deforestation.

3. Keeping in mind the targets set in the Paris accord what do you see on the horizon for corporate sustainability initiatives? How can companies and government work together to achieve sustainability and CSR goals?

We’ve just been looking back at our predictions for 2015. Twelve months ago we were very cautious about the likelihood of a good agreement at COP21, we’re relieved that our expectations have been significantly exceeded!

We foresaw the rise of cities as a source of climate (and other) solutions; recognised the shift from addressing social and environmental issues in isolation to a more systemic approach; and a new focus on inequality and poverty. We perhaps overplayed the rise of disruptive new sustainable business models but probably because the old adage holds ‘change always takes longer to arrive than you expect but when it does come it occurs far faster than you ever imagined’.

So let’s turn our attention to 2016 and make five predictions:

— COP21 (and the road to Morocco) need bigger business collaborations

Having got a good COP21 deal let’s try and understand what it means for business going forward. Firstly, after the adrenaline surge of success, there’s going to be plenty of rocky moments as individual INDCs are implemented to a greater or lesser extent but business needs to keep fixed on the big picture, a low carbon economy is coming. Secondly, COP21 succeeded because it was a patchwork knitting together of locally owned and relevant INDCs but this will lead to a disparate global marketplace of different priorities and approaches, for example with carbon pricing, that companies will have to navigate through carefully. We also need a reality check, COP21 was the easy bit, the words on paper but the hard yards of action lie ahead. Business needs to get organised quickly to start to systemically drive down its footprint at scale. The Consumer Goods Forum (CGF) for a specific sector; RE100 for a specific issue (renewables); and WBCSD for technologies that span the economy all offer pointers to how to do this but we need to step on considerably to fulfil the potential of COP21.

— Cities can engage citizens in the need for change

We called this one last year and we repeat it this year, cities (and sub-national regions) are small enough for swift action to be taken but large enough to make a difference. But we’ll extend the point this year. We need to be honest and say most aspects of our 2015 progress on SDGs and COP21 has been technocratic, a few tens of thousands of campaigners, politicians and business leaders making decisions on behalf of billions of citizens globally. This cannot continue. Europe’s migration agonies show how decisions, however logical they seem in the negotiation room, are doomed to fail unless there is true democratic mandate for change. We need to learn from this and re-double our efforts to engage citizens in why we need to change; give them confidence that change is possible; and inspire them that it will lead to better lives for them personally, not just some abstract concept called the planet. Cities allow us to have this locally relevant conversation. Equally, sports teams, religions, universities and brands can create a place where like-minded people with shared interests can work together for a sustainable future.

— Reality will grab more people’s attention

These conversations about the need for change will be helped by the simple reality of environmental and social harm that are unfolding before us. Air pollution from forest fires in Indonesia and coal burning and vehicles in China and India are harming people’s health. Drought and flood from California to Cumbria to Chennai are devastating lives and the economy. We will always be cautious about attributing particular weather events to climate change but many, many lives are being affected now around the world and this will grow in 2016.

— Finance sector is becoming a key influence

And after a decade of ambivalence the finance sector seems to have spotted the substantial risks that are now being baked (literally) into the system that funds the economy today and tomorrow (through pensions). Divestment is swinging from being a moral decision of a small number of leading institutions to a rationale consideration for most in the financial community as the pressure grows on the fossil industry. Many sectors see COP21 as a line in the sand where ambivalence and caution needs to be replaced by action and investment into new approaches. But the financial sector in particular seemed to need the official ‘stamp’ of COP21 to kickstart this change. Having been a bystander for much of the past decade, mainstream financial markets will become a significant source of pressure on business to change, to manage risk and seize opportunity.

— We need joined up action by joined up Government/Business

Let’s end on one of the themes of our 2015 missive, connectivity. The Sustainable Development Goals have cemented the understanding that everything is joined up – economy, environment and society. But this macro understanding needs to be operationalised. Business and, in particular, Government’s traditional silos and leadership skills are not currently fit for purpose for dealing with this new dynamic. We need new structures and skills urgently to deal with the incredible interdependencies that now shape our lives – literally joined up Government and joined up Business.

Nine years into our Plan A journey we can feel the shift happening between the old world and the new. We are not naïve about how difficult this change will be for us and others but we are ever more clear that what we launched in 2007 was absolutely right for making us fit for the purpose for the future.

In conversation with Mr. Adam Elman, Global Head of Delivery for Sustainability / Plan A : Marks & Spencer. (Original Post)

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