“Its not enough next year if youre 3% better than this year, and 6% the year after, or 9% the year after that," Barry says

“It's not enough next year if you're 3% better than this year, and 6% the year after, or 9% the year after that," Barry says

In the ten years since Marks & Spencer launched its Plan A sustainability commitment the UK-based retailer has "at best" completed 20% of its journey, according to Mike Barry, director of sustainable business (Plan A). "There's an awful lot that still needs to change" across the industry as a whole, he told executives at a conference in the UK last week.

It is now a decade since Marks & Spencer first launched its ground-breaking Plan A ethical and environmental goals, but Mike Barry, director of sustainable business (Plan A), estimates 80% of the fashion and food retailer's journey still lies ahead.

"That 80% is not because we have not been active the last ten years, we've worked so hard to get to where we've got. But this is an enormous challenge for all of us. There's an awful lot that needs to change," Barry told the audience at last week's 'Doing the right thing? – Best practice for sustaining our people, planet and profits' conference organised by the ASBCI (Association of Suppliers to the British Clothing Industry).

"We're entering a period of great disruption, and if you do not disrupt your own business model and fundamentally deliver a value for your customers that also builds value for society and the environment at the same time, you will be washed away. 

"It's not enough next year if you're 3% better than this year, and 6% the year after, or 9% the year after that," Barry adds.

"Next year, Marks and Spencer will try and sell more items than it sold this year and hopefully, those items will have less impact on the environment than they might have done ten years ago, but it's still more stuff."

Every year the apparel industry produces 80bn garments – that's the equivalent of 11 garments every 12 months for every person on the planet. And this figure is only going to grow as the global population continues to increase.

If it reaches 100bn garments, "that's 20bn garments for you to participate in the sale of. But I think we're running out of runway. As much as we might chase that 20bn as a business opportunity, the problems it will bring will far outweigh any short-term economic benefit that I see."

Scale of change

The UK-based retailer, which generated revenues of GBP10.4bn in its last financial year – GBP3.9bn of which came from its clothing and home business – is currently working towards 100 sustainability and environmental commitments governing the way it does business until 2020.

Among its achievements so far, the business has met 175 Plan A commitments and published its first interactive supply chain map that details nearly 700 suppliers where its products are made.

Other notable milestones where progress has been made – by the company in particular and the industry in general – include chemicals, cotton, worker standards and waste.

Chemicals: "Many in the chemical industry resisted REACH, the European chemical legislation that came in about a decade ago. But the reason that REACH was introduced was that a crisis in chemicals was emerging. I'm a great believer that any industry gets the regulation it deserves, and if people feel that REACH went a bit too far, it was because that industry had not done enough to give society confidence. So let that be a warning to us all."

Cotton: Nearly 50% of the cotton M&S uses to make its products now comes from more sustainable sources, with Barry praising the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI) for helping to drive and scale sustainable cotton uptake in global supply chains. The retailer has set a target for 70% of its cotton to come from the most sustainable sources by 2020. "The solution for sustainable cotton exists," Barry adds. "There is no excuse for a big business not to be scaling sustainable cotton fast and we'll see more of that in 2017."

Human rights: For Barry, the human dimension is another risk to be managed, but there has also been a shift beyond the immediacy of the factory to human rights in general. "Before we get complacent here in the UK and think it's an issue for elsewhere in the world, there are probably 100,000 people that have been held in slavery and treated as slaves in the UK. That is simply wrong in the 21st Century. We all need to accept responsibility." M&S was ranked top for apparel in the recent Corporate Human Rights Benchmark, but "there is so much more stuff to be done in truly managing human rights and helping people reach their potential."

Meanwhile, while many brands and retailers have published their immediate factory lists, the next step is to extend this to second tier, third tier, fourth tier, and even back to the cotton fields.

Waste: Of the 4bn garments put into the UK market each year, over 1bn go to waste. "It's crazy – all that resource being thrown away that we could use again." Like a number of retailers M&S takes part in shwapping, where shoppers are encouraged to donate to the retailer or to Oxfam to recycle those garments. "But it's not good enough; we need to do more in the future."

And as for the 55 trillion pieces of micro-plastic now in the world's oceans: "Somebody's going to wake up soon and realise we can't keep using the oceans as a dustbin and our industry's use of man-made fibres is heavily implicated in that unless we deal with it." 

A sustainable future

Barry also points to other challenges set to face firms as they try to become more sustainable, including a looming environmental crisis.

"There is not enough stuff on the planet for people to live as we do." With the world's population forecast to rise from 7bn to 9bn people over the next few decades, "the crucial challenge is moving from a world with 1bn middle-class consumers to over 4bn. People cannot all live as we do in the West, with the resources the planet can offer today. There literally aren't enough fish in the sea, there's not enough capacity in the oceans, capacity in the atmosphere to absorb all of the pollution that we create today."

Meanwhile, the Brexit vote and the election of US President Donald Trump show people lack confidence in the motives of politicians and big business.

And the fourth industrial revolution – Industry 4.0 – has to be handled in the right way. "If automation and artificial intelligence replaces every human job, it's not good for society and it's not good for business because no-one's got money in their pockets for products and services," Barry explains. "So we have to be very careful that we use this technology revolution for good."

Examples of technologies that have a positive role to play include 3D printing and the Internet of Things, which "will enable us to have hyper-transparency to control hundreds of millions of garments that are in the market and bring them back and re-use them to have a second use in the future. But again let's make sure we use that technology for good not bad." 

He also contends that while partnerships are taking shape in the textile and clothing industry (like the Sustainable Apparel Coalition), there still needs to be more collaboration.

"In the food industry, the CEOs of the biggest companies around the world sit in the same room twice a year and agree how to drive that industry forward. That is not yet happening in the textiles industry where chief execs are setting those goalposts for the future."

Five steps to a sustainable business 

Among the lessons learned so far, Barry says M&S has identified five stages to make a business sustainable.

1: Control of your footprint
"The first stage is just getting basic control on your footprint today – less energy, less water, less waste, better woods, better fish, better cotton – the basics done well. 

2: Business integration
"This is when you start to base sustainability into everything the business does. So we have a goal at M&S that by 2020, every single product we sell has to have at least one Plan A story to tell... I think we're now a little over 70%. "It is not enough to have an eco-ethical range in the corner of your shop that is perfect... everything at M&S has to have a journey of improvement."

3: Engage the customer
According to Barry, 10% of consumers are passionately green and understand organic and Fair Trade and the implications of purchasing differently. Meanwhile, 20% are not engaged and say they have other priorities in their lives. But in the middle there are two groups of 35% who "make or break the shift to the sustainable" – either on an individual basis or at a societal level.

"[The first] 35%, they're all concerned...but they're just a little bit more cautious. And then the second 35% are just a little more behind, they're saying what difference can I make?"

4: Partnership
"The fourth part of the pathway is partnership. No business on this planet, big or small, becomes sustainable unless it's partnering with those around it, including its competitors."

5: True sustainable business models
"And the fifth and final place, that none of us have got to yet [despite] all the hard work that's gone into the journey so far, is a truly sustainable business model. But it's coming. Low carbon, circular, restorative of nature, fair, equal and committed to the well-being of people, that's where we need to end up."