Carbon Trust Standard Sustainability Leaders Interview: Munish Datta, Marks and Spencer


In March 2014 Marks and Spencer (M&S) became the first retailer to receive triple certification to the Carbon Trust Standard, recognising achievements in reducing carbon, water and waste year-on-year.

Munish Datta heads the creation of the strategy and delivery of Plan A, M&S’s sustainability programme, for its properties across the world, as well as heading up the team that delivers facilities management for the company’s global headquarters in London.

Since 2006, applying Plan A to M&S properties has contributed £114 million in benefits. Within its built environment, Plan A has enabled the retailer to become 34 percent more energy efficient, 27 percent more water efficient, divert all waste from landfill, become an industry leader in sourcing sustainable materials and launch multi-award winning sustainable learning retail stores in Sheffield, Stratford, Cheshire Oaks, New Delhi and recently, York.

Munish contributes to several industry task groups, is a member of the UBM Ecobuild advisory board and sits on the advisory council of the National Energy Foundation. He speaks regularly at industry events and conferences and is a regular guest speaker at the University of Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership. Munish loves to exchange ideas on Twitter (@MunishDatta). 

What are the biggest sustainability challenges facing M&S today?

Our buildings are at the heart of M&S, ensuring that they remain attractive and enjoyable spaces for all users is critical. In the UK, we are focusing on taking the sustainable learnings we have gained so far and retrofitting these into our existing estate – making them more efficient and comfortable.

We want to make our buildings resilient to inevitable future climatic changes and resource scarcities. They need to integrate fully into being part of the social fabric of the local societies they reside in. By doing all of this, we want to better understand the health, productivity and commercial benefits we can gain. As M&S expands globally, we want to take the very best of our Plan A learnings from the UK and export them into our nearly 500 strong sites overseas.

What lessons have you learned from Plan A so far?

The greatest attribute of Plan A is that it is holistic: it doesn’t solely focus on the traditional environmental aspects of sustainability – carbon, waste, water – it goes beyond these.

Plan A for our properties includes people and process aspects – from applying BIM in the design of our new stores, to ethical auditing of our property supply base. We have learnt that looking at any one aspect in isolation is ignoring the co-dependent nature of them all.

An example of this is the impact of the method and materials used in the construction of one our stores is, at the very least, just as influential as the impact we calculate from operating them. Looking at the investment into a building just for the short term means that owners and occupiers can forgo benefits for the life of the building or even the life of the lease. 

Why did you decide to certify carbon, water and waste reductions to the Carbon Trust Standard?

At the very core of our business, we are shopkeepers not sustainability experts. Therefore, engaging with respected organisations like the Carbon Trust helps us learn and up-skill ourselves. The Carbon Trust Standard provided us with a measure on how we are doing and where we can make further improvements. Their holistic approach to going beyond carbon resonates with our own holistic ethos.

How different is an M&S store today, compared to one from ten years ago?

From a sustainability point of view, I think our store managers are now running M&S shops that are more efficient for them, more comfortable for their occupants and make them proud about working for a company that is continuously seeking to reduce its environmental impact from operations and bring benefits to local communities.

How do you engage employees with Plan A, and how important is that engagement in helping to achieve your goals?

We use a variety of methods to engage colleagues into applying Plan A to our buildings. We employ Plan A Champions in each of our stores who act as a local change agents, monitoring the stores energy, water, waste and, where applicable, biodiversity targets. We make relatively dry subjects such as energy and water efficiency more interesting by telling the story using cartoon characters like Captain Energy. Our store managers love a bit of healthy competition, so linking their bonus earning potential to their energy, water and waste performance and issuing internal store league tables is very effective. 

Getting results from deploying sustainable technology in our buildings is more fruitful when we have taken our colleagues on the journey with us – using them to influence design and involving them in commissioning means they harbour a much stronger sense of ownership in operation. I would go as far as saying that the biggest benefits our buildings Plan A programme come from engaging store, office and warehousing colleagues to share the effort and reward with us.

After achieving such large reductions and cost savings in the first few years of Plan A, how do you maintain momentum to continue making smaller incremental improvements?

We constantly seek out innovations, large and small, that help us to achieve our Plan A commitments. Our engineering team comb the market to seek, trial and evaluate these innovations, then deploy them at scale and with pace. Thorough post-occupancy evaluation of these initiatives enables us to iron out any gremlins that can occur in operation – making sure that we get the results we aimed for in design.

How are you having an impact on sustainability in your supply chain?

Our suppliers are equal partners in our journey of sustainability. From our contractual agreements, the KPIs we use to measure their performance in individual projects, to an online Plan A supplier exchange and global Plan A conferences, we are constantly sharing learnings between us. We are grateful to them for their invaluable support and expertise. Increasingly, we are seeing them apply sustainability to their own buildings and creating their own Plan As.

To what extent do you think that your customers have engaged with Plan A?

In the words of our CEO, Marc Bolland:

“Our customers expect M&S to create value for society as well as for our shareholders. They demand that our products and services deliver lasting benefits as well as short-term gratification. They believe that everyone has the right to enjoy life now and in future, but not at any cost. They expect us to enhance their lives in the broadest sense.”

There is clear evidence that our customers want to participate more in Plan A – eight million garments have now been ‘Shwopped’ and thousands of customers across the country joined our store teams to clean local beaches.

In the context of our buildings, stores like Cheshire Oaks have received amongst the highest user satisfaction ratings ever recorded and visitors to the store have accessed information about its sustainability credentials via QR codes 50,000 times. We want to harness this expectation and desire to participate by presenting them with more opportunities, many of which are linked to our buildings and communities in which we trade.

What are you most proud of achieving in your career?

It’s difficult to pick out one particular highlight as, very fortunately, there have been many in our property Plan A journey thus far. I am proud that we have a more efficient built environment and one that occupants are appreciating more and more. It is very gratifying to see the enthusiasm with which our partners – colleagues in-store and suppliers – have seized the opportunities Plan A has brought. I am hoping that the most pride worthy achievements are still ahead of us, there is still so much more we can do.

As a business, what do you think M&S is going to look like in 2050?

A business that brings positive benefit to all the people that interact with it, gives more back to its environment than it takes, is loved and trusted to always do the right thing. Enhancing lives, every day.

What are the best and worst parts of your job?

Plan A is enabling me and thousands of my M&S colleagues to go about our everyday work knowing that we are contributing to a greater good and not simply commercial gain. This is truly exhilarating.

There are some challenges along the way – projects that don’t attain the results one wants, stakeholders who are not quite on the same page – but by adapting my approach through continuous refinement, I take a great deal of satisfaction in overcoming them. After all, how would I be able recognise the best parts if I didn’t have some of the worst parts to overcome.