Seahorse Sittings: in conversation with Mike Barry, Director of Sustainability at M&S

Seahorse Sittings is a series of interviews with sustainability experts to discuss their opinions on all things environmental.

To commence our Seahorse Sittings, Seahorse met with Mike Barry, Director of Sustainability at M&S, where we discussed his thoughts on successful government policies, past and future major sustainability trends, and how businesses can lead the way to a more sustainable future.  

What do you think has been the most successful environmental policy made by the UK government this year and in the last 10 years?

Over the last 10 years, the UK government has done something truly exceptional with the Climate Change Act (2008). It was world leading, not just in terms of putting the climate reduction target in law but also because it created an enabling mechanism. Too often legislation just throws out a target or a rule and doesn’t put any of that enabling architecture in place. This did. We should learn from that, and absolutely we should push forward with that kind of architecture.

If you narrow it down to what’s happened in the last 12 months, it is really important that the UK government asks the Committee on Climate Change for some advice on the pathway to Net Zero by 2050. We need to up our ambition. We’re heading in all the wrong direction when it comes to climate change globally. The UK can be a leader in terms of decarbonising our economy, exporting new technologies, new products, new service, and making the UK a happier, healthier place.

Have there been any technologies or actions from other countries that you think have had a marked difference in improving sustainability standards globally?

The real surge for me in 2018 has been the follow-on from what Silicon Valley and California have been doing on mobility. We’ve seen the electric car, Tesla, for the last two to three years revolutionising mobility. Now it’s starting to happen with food. If you look at what’s happening in California now, the amount of venture capitalism money that’s been going into new forms of agriculture or food, such as meat alternatives. There is now much more precision agriculture, including vertical farms. There’s a flood of money, which is going to unlock our potential to create a fundamentally better food system for the future. It’s early days, but that’s where we’re looking at the moment.

Plastic seems to have dominated over the past 12 months. What trend do you think will be big next year?

Plastics has absolutely been the issue of 2018, and it will only continue to be so for the next four, five, six years. Building a new plastics economy is not going to be done overnight, but if you look at the secondary emerging issues around it, I think we’re starting to see something about meat alternatives. There are lots of people starting to explore being a flexitarian, vegetarian, or vegan, because the food and the alternative is brilliant now. People are no longer seeing it as worthy but quite dull food, but rather, they’re seeing it as something really exciting to get into. You’re starting to see mass-market penetration in terms of meat alternatives.

Real questions are starting to arise about fast fashion as well. People are now starting to look, just as they have with food, at the systemic underpinning system that we have. Buying ever more stuff, wearing it once, throwing it away, cheap clothing that has poor quality - that’s got to change. The fashion industry is a decade behind where the food industry is. It’s got so much more to do to make clothes that last, that you can wear with pride, that have been produced in truly sustainable systems behind the scenes from cotton fields to dye houses to factories, and that when you’ve finished with it, you can return it to the shop or some other source so that it can have a second life, rather than being thrown away to landfill.

Meat alternatives, fast fashion – watch out 2019!

We are expecting a new Environment Bill in the coming months – what would be your three main asks of government?

I want the Environment Bill to have ways to really engage people. Too much of our entire life generally, but particularly the environment, has become too technocratic. It’s about big conferences in Poland on Climate Change and New York on Sustainable Development Goals, it’s about Westminster and Big Business making decision. Many people want to see better environment and better society in the local place where they live. Let’s make sure that in coming up with a new infrastructure for the UK with environment, that we don’t just think about the big global things we’ve got to solve, which we must, but how we can engage with millions of people in the places where they live, they feel proud about, and they want to make a difference to.

I also want to see the Environment Bill look at the surge of innovation, of research and development, and radically different ways of living our lives and how technology can help us get there. The Fourth Industrial Revolution is out there. Let’s look at how we reset ourselves environmentally in 2019 to be positive, to be ambitious, and to use technology as a force for radical good.

What was M&S’s biggest environmental achievement this year and why?

M&S has been working on ‘Plan A’ now for over 10 years, so a lot of it has become business as usual. But if I look at what we’ve done with raw materials, I’m really proud of what we’ve done with cotton this year. We’re nearly to the point where 100% of our cotton is going to be from a more sustainable source (Better Cotton Initiative source), with a demonstrable difference in terms of reduced water use, fertiliser, pesticide, and better incomes for the farmer as well. We’ve done it with wood in the past, we’ve done it with coffee and tea, we’ve done it with fish, making sure that everything comes from a sustainable source. Now we’re about to conquer cotton. Remember the difference that will make, not just to hundreds of thousands of smallholders producing cotton that goes into our supply chain, but for millions of M&S customers who buy a product from us, they can know that they can buy a garment with better cotton in it, with no more cost to them.

What is the biggest challenge you face when ensuring sustainability standards across the M&S supply chain?

The challenge for any retailer is the sheer number of locations and issues they deal with. Our products are coming out of hundreds of different factories around the world that we do not own. Behind these factories, there are 20,000 farms – fruit, veg, meat, flowers, wine etc. – and behind them, thousands of commodity sources – the cotton fields, the palm oil, the soya etc. Whenever you’re dealing with these issues, you’ve got the sheer scale.

The key thing for us in 2018 is getting good traceability and increasing transparency in terms of our supply chain. We’ve named every food and clothing factory that we use around the world in a very easy-to-use map; it’s not hidden away as a PDF spreadsheet somewhere. Crucially for the first time, we’ve got traceability on the 7,000 beef farms in the UK that supply us with beef. We know where they are, we know the standards they produce to, and we work with the farmers to improve animal welfare standards, environmental standards, and social standards as well.

What do you think the balance is between consumer-led change and retailer’s responsibility? Does this need to change?

If we’re going to build a truly sustainable economy, we need change by business, by government, and ultimately by the consumer. It is going to have to be all three working in tandem together, but to start the flywheels spinning, the lead must come from business. We have to step forward, put our hand up and say today’s system is not working. When putting it right, so much of it is behind-the-scenes. We need to improve those factories, farms, fields, forests, fisheries; we’ve got to do that.

The government has to be there to make sure there is consistency across the marketplace through policy framework. There are a few freeloaders out there still: for every M&S, Tesco, Unilever, Mars & Co. working hard on this, there are many businesses not. We need policy that drives them forward. We also need the government to bring in one set of laws in terms of what we put on the marketplace, the materials we use, and how others recycle and reuse them as well.

Only once Big Business and Big Government are in order, can we possibly go to people and ask them to do things differently as well. This is the excitement about new products and services that are truly sustainable. Those that put the customer at the heart: an electric car that you want to own and drive because it looks fantastic and performs well, alternatives to meat that taste fantastic and you want to consume because they’re brilliant food. That is where we win, and where consumers buy into this with scale.

Given the complexities around sustainability messaging, what are your top three recommendations for an environmentally conscious consumer?

There are lots of things that consumers can do. If you think about diet, there are choices that people can make about the food they eat that makes a massive difference.

Recycling: first and foremost, we as businesses have got to make recycling as easy as possible, but don’t throw away clothing; donate it to a charity shop, give it to a clothes bank. Everything can be reused. Buy quality as well and don’t just buy something that can have one use and is then thrown away. Think about the purchases you make, from technology to food to clothing, things of quality that you can cherish and are never wasted.

The third thing, if you want to, is become an activist. For many people, that can be being on a march, writing to an MP, filling in a petition online. Be an activist in your community as well; it can be helping at a Green Gym, cleaning things, it can be litter picking, or it can be working with colleagues and friends to get renewables into your community. Stand up for this planet. When you pass the baton to your children, you want to be able to look them in the eye and say: ‘I’ve given you a fighting chance of having the prosperity and lifestyle that my generation have had’. Be that activist.