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“We launched Plan A because there is no Plan B,” started Richard Gillies, Marks & Spencer’s Director of Plan A, CSR Sustainable Business during a panel on how to nudge consumers to buy more sustainable products at the recently concluded BSR Conference.

Marks & Spencer’s sustainability strategy, more popularly called Plan A, has been the topic of several discussions and numerous awards since it was launched in 2007, mostly for its innovative and expansive approach (over 180 commitments) but also for its honest declaration of a business’ shortcomings.

And Gillies attested to that: “We made some very public and very defined goals back in 2007.” As the retailer approaches the five-year anniversary of Plan A, what are some of the results we can expect?

For starters, Gillies offered the following:

  • Carbon footprint reduction of 26 percent
  • Reduction in energy use by 25 percent
  • All packaging now sourced from sustainable sources
  • Waste to landfill cut from 80 percent to zero

Where does the consumer fall into place with these achievements – and the ultimate goal of a zero environmental footprint? And what will it take for consumers to make decisions based on sustainability performance – or as someone in the audience put it: “How do we make sustainability sexy?”

“Consumers are not prepared to pay more or compromise in the name of sustainability. We have to learn to market goods that work well and are sustainable, instead of naively believing that they will sell simply because they are sustainable,” Gillies emphasized. The market isn’t there yet, he indicated.

Gillies also admitted Marks & Spencer, the UK’s largest clothing retailer and a significant marketer of food in Europe, was “only just beginning on our sustainability journey.” “We are only now exploring our business in the mainstream. We’re trying to get our own house in order before venturing outside,” he said alluding to the initial intent of Plan A to set a sustainability strategy internally that would impact every single product line of the business.

The outspoken yet charming CSR director, who has been with the food and clothing retailer since 1984, did not mince words when moderator Virginia Terry from BSR asked him how M&S was approaching the huge task of consumer education.

Indicating that businesses must understand the potential for consumer education and their role in it, he said, “For us, consumers have to be educated behind the scenes by only being offered sustainable choices. If the array of choices on a supermarket’s shelves are all sustainable, then we don’t have an option any more.” It is because we are competing with varying levels of products – and brands – in the market that have historically put a premium price on sustainability, that consumers invariably pick the cheaper product, he added.

The next step for Marks & Spencer?

“Consumer engagement,” offered Gillies. “For example, we have been incentivizing customers to give back to Oxfam. Every time they donate used clothing, etc. to Oxfam, they receive a voucher to be used at our stores. In three years, we have helped Oxfam generate an additional $7 million in revenue because of this program.”

This, in turn, promotes customer loyalty and brings M&S’s recycling commitment to the forefront of consumer action.

As for employee participation in sustainability, there is no question in Gillies’ mind that for Plan A to be successfully integrated, a company’s internal audience must be deeply commitment and passionate about the work. “Plan A has taken a life of its own and employee engagement has been an integral aspect of this. Our employees see the benefit of what Plan A offers for themselves and their families’ lifestyles and sustenance,” he said.

Because employee participation has been incredibly high, sustainability at Marks & Spencer continues to be a journey with several discoveries along the way. For example, the carbon-free bra launched earlier this year or their re-spun coats. Gillies explained: “We take waste wool and re-spin it into coat fabric. Turns out, this can be produced in Europe for a lower cost and much lesser environmental footprint than in one of our factories in Asia.”

As for the bra, it was part of a well-strategized plan to showcase an energy-efficient factory in Sri Lanka, which is powered partially by solar and hydro energy, and one of the first sites to test its eco-factory concept. As Marc Gunther wrote earlier this year, “To offset the CO2 generated by the bra’s manufacturing and shipping, M&S is planting 6,000 trees in Sri Lanka, some of which are lime and mango trees intended to generate income for farmers.”

Gillies offered some context: “The workers in Sri Lanka weren’t doing a drive to benefit the company. They were doing it because they saw the benefits of the program for their community, their families.”

A well thought out sustainability strategy ensures the business is doing more good instead of less bad. For Gillies, this means “inspiring consumers to get to a new place without telling them that they have to sacrifice along the way.”

“Business has to reset the values of what is quality, premium and sustainable. We have to look at our products and systems and rethink how consumers evaluate value,” he added.

It’s a tough task and enough to keep the best of intentions under cover for fear of failure or the immensity of scale required. But even for those, Gillies had a word of advice: “Business cannot be paralyzed by the scale of what needs to be done. This is very much a journey. We just need to stay focused on the greater good for our planet.”

Originally written for and published on CSRwire’s Commentary section Talkback on November 8, 2011.