Ep 3 – Conversation with world renowned sustainability leader, Mike Barry
In this episode, our guest Mike Barry shares his sustainability journey with us. Mike started his stint in consultancy initially and says he fortuitously joined M&S because of then Chief Financial Officer, Alison Reed. He then talks about Stuart Rose who came in as the new Chief Executive M&S in 2004 and asked “I want to be a leader on sustainability, how do I do it?” Mike says that was the inspiration for launching Plan A in 2007 because there is no Plan B for our planet. Talking about the role of businesses in sustainability where a real business case has eventually emerged beyond legal compliance, beyond reputation management, it’s about existential business model disruption.
During his time as Director for Sustainability at Marks & Spencer and his role in balancing social impact and sustainability, Mike gives a few examples – (a) “shwopping”, and (b) “marks and starts”.
On the issue of technology and supply chains, Mike says the sustainability challenge is in some ways a data challenge. Finally talking about what the future holds, he has seen optimism and courage amongst his kids’ generation to do things differently and do it faster,
We have an amazing guest on the show, Mike Barry, who currently has his own consulting firm, mikebarryeco ltd.
Mike is a leader in sustainable change. One of the pioneers of green business in the corporate world, he helped to develop, launch and implement Marks and Spencer’s ground-breaking sustainability programme, Plan A (because there is no Plan B for the one world we have). In ten years, Plan A delivered £750m of net business benefit and over the years won 230 awards.
His external leadership ensured that Plan A leadership and learning was leveraged into wider change throughout the global economy, including as an inaugural winner of the Guardian Sustainable Business Innovator of the year in 2011 after a public vote.
Key moments timestamps
[00:25]- Mike Barry’s sustainability journey
[05:38]- What does sustainability mean to Mike
[07:38]- The role of business in the sustainability process
[10:50]- The major drivers of sustainability in business
[13:17]- The impediments for businesses to become more sustainable
[16:14]- How sustainability and social impact are intertwined.
[19:05]- Personal stories
[22:02]- The links between social inequality, the environment, and technology
[26:31]- Does technology help address sustainability?
[29:42]- Any particular sectors that are in the lead when it comes to sustainability?
[34:42]- Underrepresented sectors in the sustainability space
[42:00]- What does the future hold? Is Mike optimistic?
Check out the full episode transcription at: https://https://morewithlesspodcast.com/
My first big piece of learning on that (sustainability at Marks and Spencer) journey I would share with anybody is to surround yourself by good people. – Mike Barry.
Sustainability is about making sure that we are preparing our kids for the future, leaving them with far more upside than currently on the table and where we are leaving the big problems, helping them with the solutions and helping build resilience into their lives individually, and collectively. – Mike BArry
The sustainability challenge is one in some ways, of data. It’s a challenge of data. – Mike Barry
[00:00:00] Jaideep Prabhu: Welcome to more with less the podcast that looks at how businesses balance financial growth with sustainability. I’m Jaideep Prabhu
[00:00:08] Venkata Gandikota: and I am Venkata Gandikota.
[00:00:25] Jaideep Prabhu: In this episode, we speak to Mike Barry, Director of Sustainable business at M&S (Marks & Spencer) for several years, and now a leading advisor and commentator on sustainability. Thank you for taking the time to talk to us. We know you’ve been working at the heart of sustainable business for some years now, so maybe you could start by telling us a bit about yourself and your personal journey and how you came to do what you’re doing.
[00:00:52] Mike Barry: Jaideep, thank you. And thank you for the kind invitation to join you. So my journey quite straightforward, I did a chemistry degree, did consulting in a different century. Back in the 1990s, learned a lot from that. Very conscious that the discussion then was very much about environmental pollution but very little, if anything, about climate change. And I’m just reading Alice Bell’s book on climate change, the great experiment or greatest experiment and going back through that 200 years of history makes us realize how many issues are within plain sight for hundreds of years. But we choose as society as leaders to ignore them. So anyway, I did my sort of stint in consultancy decided I wanted be in one business, make a difference within one business and fortuitously joined M&S. Very lucky that then Chief Financial Officer, Alison Reed gave me a chance as a Executive financial assistant and what bizarrely to get me on the books, as the Junior Environment Manager, no line manager, no budget, sort stuff out was within the business.
And my first big piece of learning on that journey I would share with anybody is surround yourself by good people. I was looking at M&S to be surrounded by outstanding leaders. A great colleague, Roland Hill, who is the very heart of M&S for 20 years, building sustainability there before I joined. Colleagues like Adam Elman who led the implementation of Plan A, Carl McQuade, who was part of the intellectual development of it in the shaping of it, Louis Nichols in foods, implementing it.
So all around me I was surrounded by great people. And that was a really important piece of learning. So Stuart Rose came in as the new Chief Executive M&S in 2004 with a very bloody takeover battle with a guy called Philip Green. Thankfully he saw him off, which saved the business in so many different ways. And Stuart said to us, I want to be a leader on sustainability -how do I do it? And that was the inspiration for Plan A because there is no Plan B for the one planet we’ve got. We launched back in 2007, long, long time ago now. And that’s my second piece of learning from all this, which is Vision.
Stuart, I, those around us didn’t know what true leadership and sustainability meant back then. Goodness, it’s so much clearer now. But we had the vision to extend ourselves and really push beyond the all world of corporate responsibility of CSR. A little bit of do goody and really look at systemically reducing the footprint of the business through the products and services that M&S sold. So a lot of businesses just ran a CSR program on the edge of the business, and it was whether you were a tech company, finance company or a food retailer. It was all just the same stuff. Just do some stuff with charity, but we went to the very heart of the M&S business model, which is food and fashion and selling stuff. And making sure that our stuff was produced, the highest standard was consumed, not wasted, had a second, third or fourth life going forward.
So we were the first big mainstream business to put that at the very heart of what we did. So that was the second bit of learning for me was vision. Once we’ve launched a plan, lots of people said to me you might leave the business now that you’ve made yourself, you’ve established your name as a creator of strategies, don’t be the guy that hangs around and sees it fail.
And I’m really glad that I stayed. And I’ve, for those that have seen me see a lot of gray hair on my head and lines under my eyes and that’s cuz it was difficult. In integrating sustainability into a big busy business, 83,000 colleagues, a thousand shops, thousands of suppliers and farms in the supply chain, 3 billion items sold to 32 million customers.
It’s a big set of numbers, but conscious that Walmart’s 25 times bigger than M&S, so do the math. So that’s the third thing I learned on my journey at M&S was integration. The importance of getting this owned by the food division, the finance the fashion division, property, the marketing teams, the coms team, the HR teams.
And again, it was never done perfectly, but so many good people worked really hard against a difficult economic backdrop to do that. And we drove that integration. So it was owned locally, the business case, the focus areas, the learning. And again, there’s sometimes tensions between you in the middle and those business units, but it was absolutely critical that they owned it.
The fourth thing I learned along was evolution. So even in my time, M&S went through about four different iterations of plan. We launched a five year plan and within two years we knew it was already out of date. It needed to be more ambitious, new topics emerge, things were solved. So you never stopped in integrating and improving the plan moving forward.
And the final thing I learned just, I came out M&S a couple of years ago, 19 years at M&S. A bit exhausted. You have to be full of energy and beans to keep pushing transformation. Cause that’s what it is. Transformation. CSR wasn’t. It was about managing the status quo. Sustainability is transformation.
And if it, if you’re 10%, 20%, 30% off the pace as the individual leader of that, you’re in the wrong place, cuz it’s difficult. So finding ways for you, the leader of sustainability to keep your energy levels high, however you might do that. I’m sure we could explore it later. Critically important.
So five bits of learning from my journey at M&S.
[00:05:38] Jaideep Prabhu: Oh, that’s really interesting, Mike, thank you for that. Really comprehensive, but succinct, retelling of the story. Now you talked a lot about sustainability, but I want to ask you, what does sustainability mean to you?
[00:05:52] Mike Barry: This is such a brilliant question. Again, I go back to Alice Bell’s book, I’m reading at the moment, and she reminded me about the Brundtland commission in 1980s about balancing the needs of now and the future. And it was a big deal for two or three years that definition, and then it waned and disappeared ever slightly.
I think now it’s right back on, on the agenda because in effect our generation today is borrowing from the future of our children, our grandchildren. And that clearly we are literally using up all the spare capacity of the planet to produce resources and absorb our pollution as a society in this economy.
There’s literally nothing left. Now, 20 years ago, we knew that, but we kicked the tin down the road. It was just too distant. It was somebody else’s problems. That problem is here and now, and it’s not just environmental. So what we’re given our kids now- Gig economy. So I grew up in a world where provided you didn’t make a tremendous mistake, you had a job for life. You had a pension at the end of it. I got in the property ladder at a fairly early stage, even though that was difficult, was ever rising house prices to surf up on. Lots of reasons why my generation and I’m 54 now had brilliant time and I can find little reasons to grumble and feel sorry for myself, but really, come on. Actually, the baton we’re now passing to our children and their children is just awful. So sustainability to me is about making sure that we are preparing our kids for the future, leaving them far more upside than currently on the table and where we are leaving the big problems, helping them with the solutions and helping build resilience into their lives individually, collectively to deal with the sort of the dystopia that might, I stress the word “might” happen and not too distant in the future.
[00:07:38] Venkata Gandikota: So this is, I understand this is very personal to you from what you have said so far, but from the angle of a role of business, when you came into M&S, before M&S, were you also working on any sustainability projects with businesses and what do you see the role of business in this sustainability process?
[00:07:57] Mike Barry: Yeah, it’s a great question. I, again, go back to the 1990s and when I was working with business, then as a consultant, it was predominantly about meeting regulations to a degree protecting your reputation, but it was very much an 80 or 90%, but driven by legal compliance. So back in the 1960s, 1970s, early 1980s, there’d been virtually no regulation. Get it. Businesses, just profligately exploited the planet and polluted the planet. Through the 1970s, 80s, in the European Union, in the US, you still sort saw more and more regulations and business were just running around saying, how do I respond to this new legislation? And that’s what I helped them with.
One of the most exciting things I did was I was out in Hungary in the early 1990s, after the Berlin wall fell. Helping Hungary build the water pollution laws that were the commonplace in EU at the time, but they had to learn how to do them to join the EU. So that was a great experience to realize that even relatively advanced economies like Hungary didn’t have that basic legislation in place and needed to do it.
Skip forward and then in the early 2000, it went from legal compliance to reputation. So lots of businesses that didn’t have lots of laws covering them- FMCG retailers. Didn’t have the rules and laws of heavy industry, heavy chemicals, heavy steel to chase them. They had to do it because rightly GreenPeace was chasing them on the front page of The Guardian doing benchmarks on pesticide, use or fish sourcing, or wood sourcing.
So there’s a real business case then emerged beyond legal compliance around your reputation. You didn’t want to harm it. But now the rate the business case has evolved in the last two or three years dramatically again, beyond reputation. It’s about existential business model disruption. So we’ve seen it in power – the shift from coal to wind and solar and battery storage.
And again, 10 years ago, the boardrooms of the world’s power companies were laughing at the thought of wind and solar ever disrupted them. Now they’ve been torn apart by the complacency.
Semi mobility, five years ago, the big diesel powered car companies were never imagined that Tesla, whatever, you serve them. 2013 Tesla was worth 12 billion US Dollars. It’s worth over 600 billion. Now, a bit of speculative froth in there, but it’s worth more than all the other companies on the planet put together because they were asleep at the collective wheel.
The same is about to happen in food. The food industry is living on borrowed time, which is both contributing the biggest impact to negativity on the planet and it’s also gonna have the biggest negative impacts upon it in terms of how we just feed another billion, 2 billion people next 10 to 20 years. The food industry needs to be utterly transformed. And those that think it’s just a little bit about 1% or 2% or 3% less bad each year will be swept away. So again, what we’ve sifted from legal compliance to reputation, to business bottle disruption, and after food, every other productive sector on the planet will go through the same disruption quickly.
[00:10:50] Venkata Gandikota: So you talked about three points, legislation, reputation, business model, right? So do you think these constitute already like the major drivers? What do you think about the major drivers of sustainability in business?
[00:11:02] Mike Barry: So those three will remain important. The fourth thing that will emerge is obviously, cost. So again, increasingly businesses will rightly have to play the true cost of their external impacts on the planet. One of the reasons that the more sustainable option that we could buy ourselves, whether it’s the car or the food or the fashion costs more today, partly cuz it’s subscale, but partly cuz it’s having, it’s not getting the hidden subsidy from the taxpayer of all the damage that the conventional product is causing.
I want to see a price in carbon injected into the marketplace. Yeah. A price in carbon is complexity. It’s not perfect, but increasingly demands that people are getting a free pass at the moment, the easy option, putting it a polluting piece of meat or polluting car or polluting piece of fashion into the marketplace. A low financial cost to the consumer.
Those people pay the true cost. So that’s critical to me. So rising costs because people having to pay externalities will drive. Clearly we’re hearing more and more about the war for talent, a new generation of leaders coming into the marketplace who want to work for a business that renumerates them well, has an exciting career for them, but also as a person, a purpose and a passion about them as well. So being able to secure and retain and motivate talent will become more and more important.
There’s another business case, sadly, which is about resilience. So again, I think we’ve seen a summer of, extreme weather events all around the world from floods central Europe, to the wildfires and heat dumps in north America, flooding in China. We’ve now got dreadful wildfires in the Mediterranean. And I think businesses begin to realize that this has a dreadful impact on communities, human life and livelihoods, but also on supply chains, the availability of raw materials, the ability to actually deliver these just in time, but fragile supply chains.
Again, it was not to do with sustainability, but the blocking of the Suez canal by the big boat that got stuck there showed how quicker the global economy can be brought to its knees. So it only requires cataclysmic flooding, certain parts of supply chains or, heat or wind, and you’ve got real problems as well.
So I think that the business case for action grows bigger, but more complicated as well as more and more issues are injected into the discussion for business.
[00:13:17] Jaideep Prabhu: So Mike you’ve given us a really compelling picture of why business should change and become more sustainable. What would you say are some of the big impediments to that happening?
[00:13:29] Mike Barry: So I think impediment number one, we’ve already touched on, which is today’s business is not paying the true cost of the damage they cost for their products and services. So I’ve made that point already. I won’t repeat it. The second thing is, we also have to be realistic -for many businesses, dealing with the pandemic, it’s been a dreadful experience of actually surviving through it. And for those businesses that are boom through it, responding to burgeoning consumer demand. So there’s just been reasons for people just be a little bit heads down in that. The third thing I think is a lack of transparency. The more transparency that’s injected into the marketplace, the better.
I spoke about 10, 15 years ago when people like Green Peace and Friends of the Earth and Oxfam starts to benchmark businesses and compare them and say, here’s a leader, here’s a laggard in a sector. And that was done at very much at a brand level, but it concentrated a lot of minds in the boardroom. Nobody wanted to come bottom of those lead tables, even if you didn’t want to come top. That was transparency 1.0. Transparency 2.0 goes beyond that sort of broad brand or corporate level down to an SKU level, a by SKU level, individual product level.
So the availability of hyper detailed information on a product, its impact, where it came from -critically important. And again, we’ve seen the proverbial breeze that Unilever has thrown into the problem by committing about 75,000 unique products through carbon labeling. And even Unilever said, they’re not quite sure whether that will shift consumer demand, but we want to try, which is the right thing to do. So again, we’re gonna see incredibly detailed transparency injections into the marketplace to move things forward with what we need.
And the fourth thing, the real elephant in the room for me is the paradigm of growth and consumption. We’re all hooked on it. This generation of business leaders have been brought up with an orthodoxy that you’ve failed, unless you’ve sold more physical stuff next year, than this year, and I think we’ve got to find a way of breaking that and saying it’s about creating value for your business, your shareholders for society, not through physical stuff, sold, but by the value you inject into society and the economy, the solutions you bring to the table for people’s lives. And again, we’ve I feel that the circular economy likes the net zero carbon solution at the moment, because we are not quite defining what we mean by circularity and how it solves people’s problems.
So people are hooked, whether it’s in business or as consumers on single use plastics, on single use clothing, on technology that can’t be updated. We need to shift that paradigm. And that to me is the fundamental elephant in the room that’s holding us back from creating the economy that we need in the future.
[00:16:14] Jaideep Prabhu: Thanks for that, Mike. I’m wondering whether you could perhaps share an example from your time at M&S of how sustainability and social impact were taken into account and how that played out.
[00:16:26] Mike Barry: Yeah. And Jaideep, great question.
And let me offer just two brief examples. I’m gonna take you back to something called “shwopping”, Marks & Spencer launched back in 2008- 2009 with Oxfam. And M&S, even those 14 years ago, recognized this circularity problem. And M&S had always been proud that it produced quality clothing that lasted. And actually we talked to the charity shops, the clothing that had the best, second, third, fourth hand resale value was M&S clothing cause it was built to last, but M&S knew that it had to drive more people to donate clothing.
So it set to a relationship with Oxfam -750 charity shops in the UK to encourage M&S customers to take used M&S clothing back to those Oxfam charity shops. Oxfam resold the clothing. Raised 2 million pounds for its vital overseas development work in Africa. Great social impact. M&S customers avoided an environmental impact of throwing clothing away.
So by linking social and environmental, we saw real positivity. And then thirdly, economically M&S by encouraging consumers to participate in that, if they did need new clothing, I stress “if”, they could then return to M&S rather than another clothing retailer and buy quality long lasting clothing, and then donate it when they’re finished with it again.
And the second observation is something to do called “marks and starts” and marks and starts recognize that thousands, hundreds of thousands of people in Britain, face real difficulties getting into work. There might be single parents. They might have a disability. They might have been homeless. But there might just been from a background where going to university and getting into a good career, just not expected, never talked about, there’s no aspiration there.
And M&S worked with thousands of people from all these different backgrounds every year through placements in its stores, to give them the confidence of the skills to get into the employment ladder. And some of those jobs were entry level, stocking the shelf, but it gave you confidence. You knew you had to turn up in time, had to interact with consumers. You did it, it gave you confidence, you moved up the ladder. And that ultimately helped tens of thousands of people into work and M&S then spun that model off into work with other businesses called movement to work. So it wasn’t just M&S, but many other dozens of British businesses committed to helping people from difficult backgrounds getting to the world of work as well. So there two examples I’ll draw from my M&S experience of how you can make a real scaled difference.
[00:19:05] Jaideep Prabhu: I’m just wondering if I could follow up with a question on a more personal note, if you have any personal stories to share of businesses or anyone else trying sustainability and it working or not, and how it touched your life, perhaps.
[00:19:19] Mike Barry: There’s always personal experience. I’ve thrown out lots of big numbers, the last sort of 15 minutes or so. We’ll talk about many other big issues in a minute.
I am a dad. I’ve got three teenage kids. I’ve been really touched my sort of visits with M&S around the global supply chain. So probably the most important for me was being in Bangladesh, in Dhaka and the world’s biggest slum. Yeah. Many factory workers, sadly live there.
They’ve got a job. Normally it’s enough money to have a really decent living in Bangladeshi context. So we’re working with UNICEF and I went to this world’s biggest slum with UNICEF, and I had to ask permission to enter it because there’s no rule of law. Theres no police. You go get permission from somebody called the Mazdan, the overload of the slum to spend M&S money through UNICEF, improving the water supply there.
And I had brilliant help , and an eye opener of just the squalor, the difficulty, the ill health of lives for millions, billions of people on the planet, but also the positivity and the hope in there. And two things stick out in my mind. One was the meeting this project that UNICEF were doing for M&S there, which was in effect, paying parents not to sell their daughters at the age of 13 into servitude to become a baby baking machine for a Man twice, three times her age. It’s horrible and, I speak as a father of a daughter. And, for relative pittance – 50, a hundred dollars. Transformational for those families and how they were living. But that money was able to enabling those skills to pick up going teachers, business, women, political leaders. And that just stuck with me. And there were many hundreds, thousands of projects like that done around the world by good businesses and charities. But standing there and seeing the difference and meeting the girls was making a difference to was just overwhelming as well.
And then I think another thing I went Central America to look at a a prune farm, lots of allegations about prune farming, lots of mangrove swamp human rights abuse, etcetera. Visited these mangrove these prune farmers that supply M&S doing a great job, really working hard and finding a way of managing nature and and working with societies while creating relatively good jobs.
But it was so difficult. Because there was no overarching institutional framework or rule of law in the sense for them to work within. So everything was being self created, self policed. They were writing their definition of what a sustainable business was, and that was hard. And you could see how easily it could be done well and how easily it could be done badly. But literally seeing is believing.
And that just two stories out of dozens and dozens of human experiences that I took with it with M&S journey and learned a huge richness and humility from them as well.
[00:22:02] Venkata Gandikota: We see these things- there’s social impact, there’s environmental impact. So in one sense, there is like the inequality aspect of things. Then there’s the environment aspect of things. I read somewhere and I actually also agree that, we talk about the environment. We talk about climate change. But at the end of the day, it’s about humanity, it’s about inequality. Environmental impact also comes to social impact in a way. What do you see as the links between these inequality, the environment, and also technology.
[00:22:33] Mike Barry: Wow. What fantastic question. And let me just offer a prosaic observation first. Every morning I watch the sustainable business news. It’s my life. I love it. I breathe it. For every 10 net zero climate ambition stories I get from business and I’m seeing some really good stuff. Now. Now it’s ambition, not action. I’d see some really good stuff from business now in terms of net zero. On social sustainability, for every 10 climate stories, I’m seeing one on social ambition. And most social ambition, most social commitment from business is still about risk management, not killing people, not abusing people not having kids in your factories.
It’s pitiful. And you’re absolutely right. Unless we can link the environmental with the social, we will fail. And I grew up in the 1970s and eighties in the UK, watching communities destroyed by globalization. So people have good jobs in steel mills and coal mines and clothing factories. And these were rapidly exported off to the far Eastern of the marketplaces.
And no one stepped in to help those communities rebalance themselves afterwards. So in terms of the UK’s overall prosperity, it was a great move. Made Britain as a whole, richer nation. For those specific communities, it devastated them. Now I’m worried we’re gonna repeat the same mistake all over again. Because those communities, in part, for lots of reasons, but in part came back with Brexit and you sort with Trump and other populism to rebel against what globalization did to them. They were the Guinea pigs. They’re the ones that suffered so everybody else could have a better life. Now, what do we risk doing when it comes to the low carbon transition? We’ll need more coal miners behind and more steel workers behind and more diesel workers behind and more beef farmers behind unless we invest into the just transition and actually help people retrain and find new skills.
A new set of communities will be left behind and will rebel against net zero because it’s doing nothing for them in their eyes. And then you’ve got also then the second sort of, part of all of that, which is climate justice. And again, this is where I can say these words very humbling.
At the moment we’ve got a lot of old white men with gray hair looking like me, making decisions on behalf of very much more diverse communities around the planet now and well into the future. Where’s the justice in that? And if, even if my sort of generation of leaders that have led us to the edge of the precipice reform ourselves and say, “Hey, we’ve got the Koolaid. Now we recognize everything we’ve done wrong. We’re committed to a good future”. Still as a lead to making decisions on behalf of everybody else, which is wrong. And the third dimension you touched on now is technology. I’m a great believer that technology can solve a lot of the sustainability problems that we’ve got. Tracking and tracing does hundreds of billions, if not trillions of items that we sell, making sure that produce the higher standards, consumers know what to do with them when they’re finished with them, how to use them optimally. Brilliant, all that. But, if that technology, if we’re cloning meet in the lab controlled by one corporation- shadowy corporation, that’s paying our taxes anywhere that sort of holds your data, never tells you how it’s putting purpose of using it for, is that a better future for us? No, it’s not.
So all around is the environment and the social dimensional sustainability that should be linked at the hip, but are not. And that’s because business and government are not looking at this in an integrated. Separated the two out. And I think my final point, they filed social sustainability under “too difficult”. Cause people talk back and even if you think you’re coming up with the right answer, people turn around and push back and say, no. Whereas what’s happening with the trees or the oceans is we’re talking about campaign groups are talking on their behalf, but the ocean doesn’t turn back to say, “I didn’t want you to do that to protect me”. And that’s what we’ve got to get ahead around much more democratic approach. To protect, creating better future.
[00:26:31] Venkata Gandikota: You briefly talked about in your answer towards the end, the technology, and then you didn’t use the word, but I assume that you’re talking about like the supply chains, et cetera. And then these days we’ve been seeing startups coming up in the space and talking about blockchains for transparency and supply chains so on and so forth. So that is something that quickly came into my mind. But then also you talked about this like lab meat or any of those other things.
So broadly speaking, let’s talk about how do you see technology help addressing sustainability itself ?
[00:27:02] Mike Barry: Yeah. And just in summary, the sustainability challenge is one in some ways, of data. It’s a challenge of data. So we’ve got we talk. We throw the numbers around globally 7.7 billion people on the planet. Now, soon 9 billion. We consume trillions of items of food, 130 billion piece of clothing and footwear just before the pandemic hits in a year. Billions of phones, tens of millions of cars every year. So we throw these sort of numbers around. But if you try and track and trace all that using the classical spreadsheet, you’ll go insane. With artificial intelligence and big data, you can start to get your arms around these huge data sets. And actually the businesses that prosper in the future, there’s ones that see sustainability and digital transformation as two sides of the same coin. They’re so interlinked. So that’s the positive of all this. The downside is that the environmental movement is littered with pants on fire alarms. So let’s go back 30, 40 years. We got out of the Ozone crisis, CFCs by getting into HFCs. But they’re bad for global warming potential. We got out trans fats, which are bad for the human health and human hearts. And we were blessed with Palm oil chopping down forests. We asked people to replace petrol cars with diesel cars cause they had better miles per gallon, but created a crisis of air pollution in city centers.
So all around is where even when we’ve done something on the surface is good, we’ve created secondary negative impacts. Technology brings all of those. And I think those technology impact impacts are less environmental, but much more human. Who controls, who programs the AI. So it’s literally colorblind in terms of how it helps society. Who are the corporations, how transparent the corporation to control it, the control, the data, where did they pay their taxes? So all these issues are injected into a technology led society. And I don’t think at this moment in time, we’re really defining what it means to be a responsible technology, not just technology company, but technology using company.
And I’ve saw some sort of really interesting work by, I think it was Sloan, did a definition of a separate new definition of corporate responsibility for a digital based business, as opposed to a product led business that dominated the 20th century. And there was some good new thinking coming through in that for me, which just started to say, we need to face into this now. Otherwise we’ll be sweeping up another mess in 10 years time.
[00:29:42] Jaideep Prabhu: So Mike, when you look around you at the business landscape, do you see any particular sectors a high level, any sectors that are in the lead where it comes to sustainability?
[00:29:53] Mike Barry: Only in the sense of, in the lead from inaction. So I now see a power sector scrubbing around to respond to offset investors. I see a car industry scrubbing around to respond to Tesla. So all around me I see people who are on the back foot and I see new startups disrupting them. Cause it’s been made too easy for the startups. And we saw this with digital, we saw a whole raft of the old economy swept away by Apple and Google and Amazon and Facebook 10 15 years ago. But then we saw big businesses like Walmart and Coca-Cola learn to use digital as well. The same will happen in sustainability. So startups will emerge. They’ll grow to be at least as big as today’s businesses. Again, the Tesla story. Many existing businesses that around today will fail cuz they were too slow to respond to sustainability.
So that’s the general point. But having seen power and mobility, I made the point very quickly a moment ago about the food sector. So the food sector generates about a third of all greenhouse gas emissions on the planet. Clearly the main driver- biodiversity loss on the planet, water overuse, significant parts of the plastics pollution problem, huge amounts of inequality and unfairness in global supply chains, particularly for 600 million smallholder farmers. And of course the wellbeing crisis we got in terms of not enough food, too much food wasted, too many calories consumed by others. So all around me, I look at a food sector that really is not fit for purpose in any shape or form. That is being disrupted now.
And I love the story at the moment. There’s a story of a startup in the (United) States called Plant Ag and it’s trying to raise about 9 billion us dollars, and this is incredibly speculative and I meant no endorsement of it. I make no sense that this is business model will succeed or not. But what it’s trying to achieve is instructive. It wants to take a third of US produce production indoors, indoor vertical farms. 99% less impact on environment for pesticides, waters and fertilizers. Lot less human right abuse compared to what you get in the fields at the moment with illegal immigrants being used to pick. Lot cleaner and safer for the end consumer. Lot less Ecoli associated with US produce industry, death and illness from that. Lot fresher for the consumer -gets to marketplace within two days, rather than 12 days. Tick tick, tick, tick, lots of good reasons to want that to work, but potentially puts thousands of US middle American farmers and farming communities out of work.
Debate and discuss. So that is a sector that whether it likes it or not, these disruptors will emerge and many will fail. That’s disruption. Many will fail. But from the wreckage of today’s system will emerge the new food system.
And I see a pathway for the food system three ways. One is this high tech indoor laboratory grown, personalized diet pathway. And that will probably a little bit more about relatively rich affluent marketplaces, being able to make decisions. I see another pathway, which a lot of the NGOs would want. And I would support as an individual, which is regenerative agriculture. Not just avoiding bad things, but locking carbon up in the soil through good farm practice, regrowing nature, regrowing habitats.
I’m not sure it’s gonna be the biggest part of the food system, but it will be high value for those that sort of deliver it. And then the bit in the middle is today’s industrialized food system we have today. It’s already run very efficiently and that’s why we’ve got many of the sort of secondary social, environmental animal welfare problems of it, but it will increasingly use these data solutions, precision farming, big data sets, remote sensing, driveless tractors, to reduce its impact and environment. But not quite as much as regenerative and indoor will. Now that’s three potential pathways for the food system. That’s happening here and now. I think the fashion sector’s being disrupted by resale platforms. Again, it’s sleep walked into the sense that it just keep flogging new stuff into the future. Can’t. Models like thrift plus, thread up, Depop just sold for 1.7 billion. Vestiaire collective just found at 4 billion US in its latest fundraising round.
These models mean that people are increasingly not just wearing clothing once, but if they want to, then sell it. So again, there’ve been a sleep at the wheel, today’s fast fashion business. It’s to align these sort of new more sustainable resale platforms to emerge.
Same is happening with finance. Same’s gonna happen with tourism, same’s gonna happen with infrastructure. As we have to think about the cities that we want in the future -resilience, low carbon fair and equal. So all around me, I can see now a series of dominoes tumbling through the next decade, not just in terms of reputation and a bit of CSR, but fundamentally reimagined nature of their basic business model.
[00:34:42] Jaideep Prabhu: So that’s wonderful. You’ve talked about so many sectors food, but you also talked about clothing retail more generally the tech sector mobility and so on. Are there any sectors that no one’s really talking about and should be talking about in the sustainability space?
[00:34:58] Mike Barry: Oh, that’s a really good question.
I think everybody’s now lurching around in the dark room, look looking for the light switch to, to put on and work out where they sit down at the new table. I think tourism’s a really interesting one, cuz clearly it’s been decimated by the pandemic and you feel for anybody involved in that, but how we will be using our recreational time to recharge our batteries in the future, I think will be very different.
And I, you begin to speculate on what virtual reality tourism might look like. For me, had the privilege and look to travel a lot around the world. But all the associated carbon footprint I’m afraid would shudder up my thoughts, but maybe that comes in a world, which is too hot to visit places.
And again, you look at all the wildfires we’re having the Mediterranean now and how people, hotels being evacuated. What’s their future. We see Ski resorts losing its snow at high altitude because the world is warming. Aviation that thinks the future is probably a linear disruption. We might have electric flights in 20 years.
You’ll see at some point in the next 10 years, a concerted societal movement to fly less. And that’s not to say that we won’t all fly a bit, but just like meat reduction, flexitarians, we will see a movement in terms of reducing flying. Now there’ll be more people on the planet. So maybe the overall impact is less than for the aviation companies.
But again we assume that the future is linear. It’s not. So I will definitely watch out for what’s happening in tourism.
I think finance as well just let’s leave it on this one. Finance did nothing for 20 years apart from a very small number of impact funds and impact investors. Now all the big banks, certainly the Western marketplaces are getting the ESG gospel. They’ve all got report. They’ve all got a fund. It’s my old world, CSR and corporate responsibility. It’s tick the box, risk avoidance, strip the bare bones back. And none of them are transformative in any correct scale.
And I think that’s a sector that’s gonna have to come back and do a second or a third iteration of what it means to be a sustainable finance sector. To shift to this truly impact led model. And also then this desire to shift much more quickly amount out of the losers of these disruptions we talked about. Stranded assets, not just in the oil, power sector, but the food sector, the fashion sector, the tourism sector. How quickly you could be on the wrong side of these investments left with an awful lot of money locked to assets that will never be used again.
So I think the whole finance sector just needs to wake up and move further and faster on these things.
[00:37:35] Venkata Gandikota: You talked about sectors so far, initially the ones that are doing something in here and then the ones that nobody’s talking much about, but then do you have any particular businesses themselves like a shout out, that are doing good things on this issue right now?
[00:37:50] Mike Barry: Yeah. And let me use examples and just in terms of about transparency. I’m not working with any of these businesses specifically. I wouldn’t apart from maybe a couple I’ll mention at the end. There’s a UK technology retailer called Dixon’s carphone warehouse, just like many businesses just made a big net, zero scope, one, two, and three commitment, really like it.
But there’s two things underlying it that are much better than most. First is a commitment to work with 10,000 suppliers actively to help them do it. So most businesses make a big net scope, three commitment, and they just said to the suppliers, get on with it. Dixons have turned around, said we’re gonna help you. So I really like that.
Second thing they’re doing is making sure that 40% of their boardroom bonus potential is based on ESG delivery and then unless you get that alignment of executive renumeration with actually delivering change, nothing actually changes. So that’s an example one.
Second example is something similar from Morrison’s the UK food retailer who have committed to work with 3000 British farmers to help them become net zero by 2030. Again, you can’t just turn around to a farmer, often just an individual woman or a man, a family farming the land in a traditional way for the last 150 years. And you turn around to become, let zero overnight. And it’s like, how? But I’d like the way Morrison’s have stepped forward and say, yeah, we’re gonna support them.
A third example is the food retailer Co-op, again in the UK, that’s committed to about 2025, all its private label food. So most supermarkets will sell a mix of brands. They’re on private label food. Their private label food and drink will be carbon neutral by 2025. Now there’s an absolute deduction of 11% in emissions initially in that, offset the rest, but then a commitment to progressively drive down the offsetting by reducing emissions. So it’s not standing still. And I like that for the totality. It’s not say we’re gonna have a nice niche, ethical eco range in the corner of my shop over there. And then there’s everything else. It’s that whole private label food and drink.
Next example is a business called Ocado an online retailer. And again, I should say they’re owned now by marks and Spencer, part owned. And I’ve got a few shares in Marks and Spencer from my historical days there. So just declaration of interest. But Ocado have now got part of their website that highlights 1500 B corporations, certified businesses. So rather than me having to Wade through thousands and thousands of different products to try and find that ethical one, this is the place to go and try and find a good product. And B Corp is interesting itself. Cause rather than having to look at a carbon label and human rights label and a water label, in effect, B Corp looked at all of that for me and just said, “here’s a good business”.
So they’re all examples of what I like. All birds, I think have done a great job at inventing new materials to drive down the carbon footprint, a product they’ve come up with a new plan just recently- to keep driving that down 50% further reduction in embedded carbon in their products, love that. But also commitment to work with their customers to reduce the amount of clothing that’s washed at high temperature and the recovery of shoes and clothing when people are finished with them as well. So again, closing the loop, working with citizens as well as behind the scenes to drive change. And Microsoft, I think Microsoft, and to be fair Google, coming up with some great initiatives now to create these solutions that we want to drive change the scale use of technology for good. Now, lots of questions about their overall commitment to society, some of the issues that we’ve spoken about, but in terms of Microsoft’s work on the planetary computer like that work. And a final point, having said that virtually all these businesses sort of commitments are about environment, what Virgin media have done to put people at the heart of their business model. They’re doing all the green stuff. But the main way that a media technology company can help society is by connecting people, lonely caring for somebody at home, can’t get out as much as they want. They’re committing to work with them as well as behind the scenes, the carbon footprint to make everything more circular. So, putting society in social benefit at the heart of what they’re doing as well.
So that’s just a smattering of examples of people that’ve seen do good stuff.
[00:42:00] Jaideep Prabhu: Mike, that’s been wonderful. There’ve been so many insights and examples and personal stories as well. When you look to the future, how do you see it? Are you optimistic or do you think it’s going to get worse before it gets better. What your sort of overall thoughts about business and sustainability?
[00:42:18] Mike Barry: Wow. That’s the hardest question to answer. And I’m gonna answer in part as a scientist, as a parent, as a business leader, as a citizen and all of those sort of swirl around my head.
If I just looked at this as a scientist, I’m really worried. You just have to look at the impact on our lives of one degree of warmth on average around the world and the impact it’s having on our society. People often ask what’s the difference between 1, 2, 3 degrees- a) it’s not linear in terms of impacts. And second that, contextually the world used to be on average about five or six degrees colder 10,000 years ago. It was the Ice Age, where I’m sat was probably under a thousand meters of ice. So if you warm the world three or four degrees, the other direction on average, what are you doing? And remembering 10,000 years ago, apart a few cavemen, there’s nobody else on the planet. Yeah, there weren’t eight, 9 billion people living this just in time life. Certainly in Western marketplace, it’d be absolutely dreadful. So there’s part of as a society that said the future is truly dystopian and we’ve got so much locked in ways of working in the infrastructure and so much political indecision and business indecision at the moment that, I can’t, I struggle to imagine how we stop at 1.5, how we stop at 2, two and a half, even 3 degrees of warming. So that’s the scientific pessimist in me.
The business leader in me says we’ve talked, we’ve seen how rapidly the power sector and the mobility sector have gone from doing nothing to being totally upended. So I think there’s now probably a 10 year cycle from a sector being totally unsustainable to very significantly more sustainable than it’s today. Now, there’s an awful lot of policy decisions and business innovation, investment decisions to make that happen. But we’ve proven that we can do it.
And the pandemic also proves that we can change our lives as a society and economy very rapidly if we need to as well.
And the final point I make is as a parent and three teenage kids and see their passion for the future, their ingenuity, their drive. Recognizing that my generation left with the mess that they need to pick up, but this, just this optimism and courage amongst them to do things differently and do it faster, not wait dead man shoes for 20 or 30 or 40 years before their prime minister or chief exec, but do it now. And I think we see more and more young activists come through demanding change of political leaders, business leaders. And if we’re not willing to change, we should get outta the way.
And that’s my final point for both of you. When I came out of M&S two years ago, people said to me, Mike, you could become Chief of Sustainability Officer of company, X, Y, and said another big job, one last big job and I was half tempted.
But then I’ve decided to commit professional euthenizing. To take myself out of the C-suite and the shiny glass office and the big desk. And even though I think I’m quite good at my job, I can still bring an all thought to the marketplace with discussions like this through consultancy advice, guidance, mentoring. I shouldn’t be in that position of power. And I should actively, even though normally I would carry working at the five or 10 years in the C-suite. I should bring myself out of letting a younger generation come through and do things differently. And I don’t impose that upon everybody of my generation. We’re all different. Of course we are. But I felt very strongly about that. That a new generation of leaders is what we require.
[00:45:41] Jaideep Prabhu: Wow. That’s really powerful, Mike. Thank you again for all those insights and all those thoughts at the end in particular. Really powerful.
[00:45:49] Venkata Gandikota: Thank you, Mike. Yep.
[00:45:50] Mike Barry: Absolute pleasure. Really enjoyed it.
Venkata Gandikota is frugal innovation and impact investing evangelist and Prof Jaideep Prabhu is a Professor of Marketing at Cambridge University’s Judge Business School and co-author of an award-winning book on frugal innovation.
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