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Ideas for Leaders #039

Embedding CSR and Sustainability: Marks & Spencer

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Key Concept

Using Marks & Spencer as an example, there are certain practices other organizations can similarly apply to improve focus on corporate responsibility and sustainability. The UK retailer has made a number of successful moves towards embedding social and environmental awareness and practices into its everyday strategic vision. In this Idea, these are analyzed and discussed, offering companies tips they can similarly apply.

Idea Summary

Sustainable business practices are in the spotlight more than ever before, as awareness of the environmental and economic aspects to resource management keeps increasing. It’s changing the way businesses work and strategize, bringing a new way to deliver competitive edge to the table.

The case for incorporating sustainability practices within an organization is constantly expounded. In this Idea, the example of British retailer Marks & Spencer (M&S) provides insight into how to do so based on their success. By setting itself the ambitious goal of becoming “the most sustainable major global retailer” by 2015, the company has placed itself in a position whereby others can learn much from them in this context.

Though the M&S has always had strong values and a ‘paternalistic’ approach to doing business, it could not avoid hitting a low during the late 1990s. A hostile takeover bid in 2004 led to a change in leadership but the bid was eventually fought off; however, this also sparked a general overhaul, and it began moving towards embedding higher standards of environmental and social performance across the organization.

Most significantly, ‘Plan A’ was launched, which demonstrates all of the six core behaviours identified by the 2010 Accenture/UNGC Survey of CEOs as key to embedding corporate responsibility and sustainability within a company. These are:

  1. These issues should be fully embedded into the strategy and operations of a company;
  2. Boards should discuss and act on these issues;
  3. These issues should be fully embedded into the strategy and operations of subsidiaries;
  4. Companies should embed these issues through their global supply chain;
  5. Companies should engage in industry collaborations and multi-stakeholder partnerships to address development goals; and
  6. Companies should incorporate these issues into discussions with financial analysts.

Business Application

The manner in which Marks & Spencer has proceeded to implement ‘Plan A’ can be broken down to provide other organizations significant insight on doing the same. For example:

  • Commitment to the plan (or intention to embed sustainable practices within the company) should come from the top leadership in the organization. Executives in charge of all departments should be involved and motivated to demonstrate their commitment. One example from M&S in this respect is that a percentage of senior executives’ bonuses is related to delivery of their Plan A-related Key Performance Indicators.
  • A body/committee should be set-up to oversee and review strategic and investment decisions taken by the board. At M&S, this is done by “The How We Do Business Committee” which meets monthly.
  • Rather than ‘bolt-on’ environmental and social commitments, they should be integrated into operations and strategic business units.
  • Engaging the value chain has been a key feature of M&S’s Plan A. For example, they set up an online Knowledge Exchange for the company’s 2,500 suppliers to learn from each other.
  • Employee engagement is also crucial. There is a concentrated drive at M&S to engage all 75,000 employees with, for example, volunteering activities. Moreover, the company offered its loft insulation service to its employees first before it was made available to the public.

Other actions include detailed annual progress reports, identification of achieved targets, reporting to key external sustainability stakeholders, and developing traditional company-charity relationships into mutually beneficial partnerships.

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Idea conceived

  • 2011

Idea posted

  • January 2013

DOI number



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