While many retailers wax endlessly about how they are “sustainable,” venerable United Kingdom-based Marks & Spencer leads the pack. Now in its sixth year of its forward-thinking “Plan A,” the Marks & Spencer environmental and social responsibility plan will ramp up even more in the coming months.

How is M&S accomplishing this transformation? Products must have a “Plan A” quality, which can include the following groupings: fair trade, animal welfare, more healthful food, energy efficient manufacturing and sustainable raw materials. All in all, there are over 40 Plan A Qualities.

The result is that over 30 percent of M&S products sold stores worldwide have a minimum of one Plan A quality. The retailer has the goal of boosting that ratio to 50 percent by 2015. And according to Environmental Leader, the annual number of items M&S sells that has an ethical or ecological quality above what the market considers the norm is now one billion.

One’s gut reaction may be the sale of one billion of anything cannot be sustainable in the long run, but if one department store chain can prove that wrong it would be M&S. Over 21 million customers visit its stores weekly, and while FY2012 operating and before tax profits are down slightly from the previous year, total revenues, at $15.75 million (£9.9 billion) are up two percent over the same period. Plus M&S as a company is benefitting from the company’s dedication to sustainability that it first announced in 2007. Overall M&S estimates it has generated a $167 million (£105 million) benefit from its Plan A agenda, partly because of the 28% overall reduction in energy consumption the company has achieved since its 2006-2007 fiscal year.

Watch for that one billion figure to rise in the coming years as M&S commits to more ethical fashion with its participation in the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI). While the sourcing of fair trade-certified cotton has been problematic for M&S, the company insists it is still on target to source 25 percent of its total cotton from BCI-certified suppliers by 2015 and 50 percent by 2020. Meanwhile sales of fair trade-certified foods continue to surge while companies within the M&S supply chain adopt more energy-efficient practices. Retailers that are still not convinced that a company in their space can aggressively tackle challenges related to sustainability and can still perform well should take more than a page out of M&S’ playbook. From clothes recycling ("Scwopping") to social enterprise to green building, Marks and Spencer is keeping a pace its competitors cannot keep up with.

Published earlier this morning on Triple Pundit. You can follow Leon and ask him questions on Twitter.

Image credit: Marks & Spencer

About The Author

Leon Kaye

Leon Kaye is the founder and editor of GreenGoPost.com. Based in California, he is a business writer and consultant. His work is has also appeared on Triple Pundit , The Guardian's Sustainable Business site and has appeared on Inhabitat and Earth911. His focus is making the business case for sustainability and corporate social responsibility. He's pictured here in Qatar, one of the Middle East countries in which he takes a keen interest because of its transformation into a post-oil economy. Other areas of interest include sustainable development in The Balkans, Brazil and Korea. He was a new media journalism fellow at the International Reporting Project, for which he covered child survival in India during February 2013. Contact him at leon@greengopost.com. You can also reach out via Twitter (@LeonKaye) and Instagram (GreenGoPost). As of October 2013, he now lives and works in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.