Corporate Sustainability: “There is no plan B for saving the planet.”

This is why UK-based retailer Marks & Spencer (M&S) calls its sustainability plan — “plan A” — explained Mike Barry, Head of Sustainable Business for M&S in the panel, “Beyond the Single Bottom Line,” at the 2010 Skoll World Forum.  He went on to say that when M&S launched plan A, the company executives thought that in order to implement it, they were going to have to spend £200 million over 5 years.  In marked contrast, three years later, plan A initiatives are instead generating a profit of £50 million.

Framing these impressive results is a story about how the CEO embraced this approach as an important facet of the M&S brand with the strongly held belief that M&S could make money by operating in a way that is fundamentally better for the environment.

As I was listening to Mike’s remarks and impressive results, I found myself wondering why all companies don’t embrace this approach.  The history of Environmental Defense Fund’s work with companies – as well as the work of many other NGOs and their business partners (independent of EDF) – has proven time and again that there is a business case for sustainability initiatives.  Then why is making money by reducing environmental impacts not a standard practice for all businesses?

On one side, there is the issue of the need for a policy framework to send the right market signals and provide stable, long-term investment horizons for companies to see a return on their efforts.  However, the other side seems to be a question of leadership and the age-old challenges of organizational change.  One of our efforts focused on addressing this barrier is embodied in the EDF Climate Corps program; where we train MBA students and embed them in companies for a summer to help them identify energy efficiency opportunities.  Through this program we are training tomorrow’s business leaders to incorporate energy efficiency as a standard management practice.

We can’t stop there, though, because M&S is right – there is no plan B for saving the planet, so we as a society have to get to work on our plan A too.  If you have ideas of how else we might, as a community, address this issue around leadership, I would very much like to hear from you.

You can find out more about 2010 Skoll World Forum, including podcasts and videos of presentations here.