Spotlight on: Transformation & Leadership with Mike Barry

In June 2019, Mike Barry resigned as Head of Sustainable Business at the retailer Marks & Spencer after 14 years with the company. During his tenure, Mike famously developed and delivered M&S’s Plan A, an industry-leading 100-point, 5-year plan to address a wide range of environmental and social issues and to integrate future resource constraints and social changes in their offer. Mike’s credentials as a sustainability expert extend beyond M&S to the Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership, the Consumer Goods Forum, and more, and he was recognized as the Guardian’s inaugural Sustainable Business Innovator of the Year (2011).

Last week Mike sat down with New Angles to talk about the key takeaways from his experience at M&S for other companies, the necessary steps for moving from incremental change to business model transformation, and what makes an effective leader for sustainability.

(Interview notes edited for length and clarity.)


NA: You’ve spoken a lot elsewhere about how you developed Plan A at M&S (so we won’t ask you to rehash that now). How important is support from the top versus support from the bottom?

MB: When we were first thinking about it in 2006, there was no Greta Thunberg, no climate crisis, no great market pressure.  Plan A was about M&S anticipating where we were going, not reacting to where we were at the time.  It was about risk management, but we said that we can’t cherry pick; the change needs to happen along the whole value chain.  In fact customers were saying more and more that we need both to be responsible for our suppliers and to also help them (the customers) be better, by creating solutions around recycling, for instance.

The sustainability department was never a big, central team.  At most we were 10 people out of 3,000 colleagues, which meant that responsibility for Plan A was spread across the functions.  A clear business case that went beyond preserving our reputation and avoiding bad press to cutting waste too convinced employees while tapping into their pride.  As our competitors started responding, we had to constantly evolve the plan in order to keep ahead.  The reaction from the market enabled buy-in because it proved that we were on to something.

We were also able to champion change while spreading the burden of that change, which made the challenge more manageable.  Some issues are too big for any one business to tackle, so we became a leader in multiple coalitions such as the Consumer Goods Forum where everyone did the same amount of effort and shared the cost.


How important were customers in M&S’s implementation of Plan A? How much should companies rely on their customers to drive their transformation?

I’m reminded of the famous Henry Ford quote, “If I had listened to my customers, I’d have given them faster horses.”  It’s the same as Apple and the iPhone; customers don’t know what they want.  You have to interpret their needs.  Customers are worried about climate change but don’t want to spend more money or be asked to sacrifice.  Fundamentally customers want better products that happen to be green.  Tesla works because it’s an aspirational sports car.  Veganism is taking off because it’s increasingly convenient, affordable, and tasty.  Right now I’m wearing Allbirds trainers, which are comfortable and high quality and happen to be sustainable, too.  We need to give them what they didn’t know they wanted.

There’s a marketplace need here: Customers are worried about climate change, biodiversity, and human rights but can’t connect their purchases to their values.  There are opportunities for companies to do that.


Do you think M&S has succeeded in putting a sustainable business model in place or are they more focused on making incremental improvements to their historical model? 

At M&S we set five change steps to achieve our 100 points.  First is the foundation, getting firm control of all of the social and environmental issues along our value chain.  Second is integrating into the commercial half of the business, so that all products have at least one Plan A story to tell that joins Plan A objectives with customer needs.  The third step is partnership because you can’t change the world alone.  You need coalitions, especially around complex issues like palm oil sourcing.  Fourth is about engaging customers and employees in why you’re doing what you’re doing and how you’re doing it.

These first four steps are about mitigating impact and constitute 20% of the work.  The remaining 80% is the fifth and final step, the shift to a new business model.  It’s about new ways of satisfying consumer needs, and it is the single hardest part of the sustainability challenge.  M&S just launched a new vegan line, which is a high-quality differentiator and offers some of the best options on the market.  It’s been a huge commercial success so far.  In the future the company needs to look at resale platforms, like Poshmark for example.


What qualities make an effective sustainability leader?  Based on your experience, how is sustainable leadership different from leadership for sustainability?

Leadership is leadership: It’s recognizing that the world changes constantly, in terms of social and environmental factors as well as economic.  It’s examining trends, developing a strategy, making a pathway for change, giving rewards and recognition along the way, and then doing it all over again.

My qualifications for sustainability leadership would be:

  • Emotional intelligence: Most of the information we need exists and is accessible but we don’t adopt change for lots of reasons. We need to get alongside people in order to get them to change.
  • IQ: You have to be clever and able to join the dots. It’s about bringing together different emerging trends – the sciences, policy, economics – for your company.  This includes dots in system change and building a theory of change that you can be a part of, but business is used to working in silos.
  • An ability to build partnerships: Leaders need to be able to move between competition and collaboration.
  • Experience: Sustainability leaders need real experience in the business world so they can respect and understand the lives of the people working in the business.
  • A clear business case: Leaders need a business case for today and for tomorrow at the same time. You have to be able to imagine the radical disruptions coming down the line.
  • Courage: Change isn’t easy. Even at M&S where we had a lot of support, there were still challenges, and you need resilience in the face of those challenges.


What mistakes do you see companies making in their efforts to get sustainability happening?

The first mistake is that they’re not going quick enough.  When you think about plastics, meat, power, cars – the signals are there but they’re not responding fast enough.

Next is that too many businesses are not prioritizing.  There might be 50 things on the list of important issues, and five of these are essential that go to our core and that we need to be a leader on.  For 20 we can partner and share the burden.  The third tier on the bottom is areas where we don’t want to be embarrassed but that don’t require huge investment or attention.

Lots of companies are dashing to quick fix solutions that may have equally bad or worse impacts.  If we think about the evolution of plastics, we’ve been substituting one with another without really getting to the heart of the issue: ultimately, we should just use less.  Gas cars were bad in terms of carbon, so we switched to diesel which is worse for pollution.  We looked a lot at biodiesel as an option but now we’re moving towards electric instead.  It’s about making the right decisions.

Finally, people don’t think about engagement enough.  We emphasize standards, which are very important, but human engagement is still lacking.  Sustainability needs to be brought to the hearts of employees, the board, and customers alike.


Tell us about what you’re looking forward to doing next, now that you’ve stepped away from M&S.

I want to be at the heart of the shift from the old economy to the new economy.  Change is both necessary and possible, and through change our lives could be better.  I want to be a part of the move towards putting sustainability at the heart of business models, so that winners crowd out companies that are unwilling to change from the market.