Innovative programs from M&S offer support, build trust, and ensure sustainability

Written by Connor Hill

Plan A, because there is no Plan B. What does this mean for Marks & Spencer (M&S) in their aim to become the world’s most sustainable retailer? We launched Plan A in 2007 with 100 commitments, and in 2010 we added a further 80. These early commitments covered climate change, waste, natural resources, fair partnership, and making Plan A how we do business.

In June of this year, we launched Plan A 2020, consisting of 100 new, revised, and existing commitments making our eco- and ethical strategy more agile and stronger while continuing to build resilience and flexibility in the supply chain, so that it is a fit for the future.

Small stepping stones

In this short article, I’m going to share some of the projects and commitments we’ve been working on recently, both globally in our supply chain and locally in our stores. We know there is a long, long way to go before becoming a truly sustainable business, but we feel these projects are the small but necessary stepping stones needed to achieve our ultimate goal of becoming the world’s most sustainable retailer.

We believe it is important to have healthy and prosperous communities and, therefore, we are investing in the next generation of workers in our communities and in our supply chain to have the greatest social impact and long-term sustainability.

Global efforts

An example of this has been the training of over half a million people who work in our General Merchandise supply chain. We believe that training can make a huge difference to working conditions and, in this instance, it covered employment responsibilities and rights, basic healthcare and, where possible, financial numeracy and literacy.

“It’s not enough to be trusted today, you have to earn trust repeatedly,” says Mike Barry, Director of Plan A at M&S. We need to continue to be smart and adopt a new bottom-up approach to supplier audits and engagement so that we have visibility throughout our entire supply base.

Our new Ethical and Social Factory Audit that we’re trialling is based on crowdsourced information through workers’ mobile phones. We found the traditional face-to-face factory audits only serve as a snapshot in time and involve limited workers. This new method makes it easy and affordable to involve thousands of participants in a factory survey or audit. How does it work? Participants are called, and then answer around 20 multiple-choice questions, with all responses anonymously captured using a central server. Workers welcome the chance to share their views and enjoy seeing the results posted on notice boards.

For us, the system highlights individuals’ concerns and surfaces trends—for example, a consistent problem on one shift or line, or a polarisation in attitudes between supervisors and workers. This information means we can intervene more effectively.

Our trials have already connected us with 58,000 participants. We believe it could be a game-changing breakthrough, taking us far beyond compliance and bringing us closer to our supply chains than ever before.

As an international retailer sourcing from around the world, we recognise that we need to train and safeguard our supply chain against issues ranging from climate change and health and well-being, to declining yields and dwindling natural resources. There is also a need for suppliers to be able to adapt quickly to change, and build community resilience.

Our new Emerging Leaders program in Kenya and South Africa develops leaders (3,500 workers so far) who are capable of coming up with solutions and innovations that will support business success. Managers in the workplace reported that communication, productivity, and worker engagement improved after the program. People close to participants noticed a difference too, observing that trainees had become more positive and constructive, and more inclined to look for solutions to problems.

Increased financial literacy and earnings have led to higher savings and better livelihoods for many people. In turn, that means more people are able to send their children to school.

Building resilient communities with our suppliers now will mean greater flexibility and less exposure to global disruption in raw material scarcity, currency and energy volatility, market instability and climate change.

Local programs

As one of the country’s leading employers, we believe we have a responsibility to act and to tackle issues in our local community, such as youth unemployment and creating opportunities for those with disabilities.

In the UK, nearly one million people are unemployed. Our Make Your Mark (MYM) program supports disadvantaged unemployed young people who lack the skills and confidence to find work. It is a bespoke vocational training program designed to equip young people for a career in retail. The program comprises training, a work placement, and post-program support, all designed to address the specific skill shortages of those who have never worked before, or who come from a background of work scarcity.

“When I started MYM I felt for the first time that something was going right. It helped my confidence and my belief that there was someone who actually cared for me.”

—Joel, 17, Solihull store

Each young person is partnered with a “buddy” in store.

“The opportunity to pass on knowledge and experience gives me a sense of fulfilment. MYM shows M&S at its best, and we should celebrate that. I have loved every minute of it!”

—Brian (buddy)

This year, we saw over 1,440 young people start MYM, with almost 80 percent of those who completed the program going into paid employment. By 2016, we aim to have offered support to 5,000 young people as part of our Plan A 2020 commitments.

We understand that we can’t solve youth unemployment on our own, and so far, over 200 supplier sites have made a pledge to support MYM, as well as other businesses who are now working with us on “Movement to Work.”

We are now looking at how we can expand these programs and others deeper into our supply chain and share the learnings with other organizations. To follow our progress, visit the Plan A Blog at