The IT business case for sustainability

Six hundred of my colleagues and suppliers were out and about in local communities yesterday planting trees, inspiring the next generation of IT experts, helping care home residents beat loneliness and spending time with students from...

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Six hundred of my colleagues and suppliers were out and about in local communities yesterday planting trees, inspiring the next generation of IT experts, helping care home residents beat loneliness and spending time with students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

It’s all part of Plan A, our eco and ethical programme aimed at making M&S the most sustainable major retailer in the world.

Marks & Spencer put Plan A at the heart of our business because we believe it’s crucial to our future. By 2030 world demand for food and energy will increase by 50% and demand for water by 30 per cent*. In our view, businesses that aren’t tackling the big sustainability issues face an uncertain future.

But it’s not just about 2030, resource scarcity and growing populations. There’s a very compelling business case for sustainability right here, right now and the role of IT cannot be overstated.

In my view, if you’re not thinking about the risks and opportunities presented by the shifting environmental and ethical landscape, then you risk being left behind.

And it’s more than just simply employing computing devices efficiently (although that’s a great start!).

Here’s why.

Plan A last year delivered for M&S a net benefit of £135 million through efficiency savings and new business opportunities. That’s a huge amount of money M&S otherwise wouldn’t have had, had it not been for Plan A.

The IT department directly delivered several million of that through activities such as reducing printing costs and lowering energy bills in data centres.

Indirectly, we played a part in every other penny saved or gained.

New systems to increase the traceability of raw materials, POS systems for marking down food prices to reduce waste, video conferencing facilities connecting offices and stores across the world, bringing together 2,000 suppliers on the web etc etc.

Big data is another great example. Nine times out of 10 when we talk about big data we’re talking about how we can use it to increase sales and improve targeted marketing. Big data has had a huge role to play at M&S in making us a more sustainable. For example we’ve delivered systems that have enabled central teams to analyse the energy and water use at over 700 stores.

This has enabled them to take measures that have helped us become 31 per cent more energy efficient and use 27 per cent less water. If you can’t understand the problem and see where your pinch points are, solving it is virtually impossible. IT has helped lift the lid.

And it’s not only about pound notes. There are non-financial benefits to go for as well.

Employee turnover in our industry can be a problem and our world is typified by transitory contractors and short term projects.Our employees regularly tell us that Plan A is one of the main reasons they come to M&S in the first place and one of the main reasons they stay. A sustainability plan gives your people a reason to believe, a togetherness and a purpose that not only makes a business better, it makes an IT department better.

That’s why we’re volunteering. More motivated staff, working in close collaboration with suppliers, learning new skills and making a difference.

The growth of multi-channel retail has thrust IT from a back office function right into the boardroom hot seat. It should be the same for sustainability. It’s an opportunity for IT to be at the decision making sharp end, saving businesses money and motivating employees.

Posted by Darrell Stein, IT Director, Marks & Spencer

* Sir John Beddington’s perfect storm

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