Interview with Mike Barry

Part of our Global Sustainability Leaders Inteview Archive, this interview dates from 2011

Interview with Mike Barry Head of Sustainable Business at Marks & Spencer

As part of our series of Global Sustainability Leader Interviews, ALLEN & YORK were delighted to speak with,  Mike Barry about how he became involved in Sustainability and what he believes are the major challenges facing the sustainability sector in the next 20 years.

Mike Barry is Head of Sustainable Business at Marks & Spencer. He is part of the team that oversees Plan A, the eco and ethical programme with the ambition to make the company the world’s most sustainable major retailer by 2015. He is also Chair of the World Environment Centre, following six years on the WWF programme committee.  We asked him about what / who inspired him to get into a career in sustainability and what in his opinion are the major challenges for the future.

1. Who or what inspired you to go into a career in sustainability? 

Tom Zabel was my first boss. He took me under his wing at the Water Research Centre in the 1990s. Knocked me into shape. Taught me how to analyse a complex situation, communicate a solution and get people on-side to want to deliver it; skills that form the bedrock for any career in sustainability.

2. What has been the biggest change in sustainability that you have seen in the last 20 years?

The sustainability journey is constantly evolving. Perhaps the biggest shifts I’ve seen have been the move from a production focus, to one where consumption is also considered.  There has been a  move from making business as usual ‘less bad’ to a consideration of how we develop new business models.

Both are now being put at the heart of the sustainability debate, as much as technology. The ability to engage millions of consumers and employees positively in sustainable change will be central to any sustainability professional.

3. What is going to be the biggest challenge for sustainability in the next 20 years? 

Delivering the above! But also managing ‘trade-offs’. Much of the ‘low hanging’ fruit of improved sustainability performance have been addressed, obviously the daft things we were doing. 

However, today every ‘good’ thing we could do has the potential to have a negative impact elsewhere. For example; Stop flying food in from Africa, but lose relatively good jobs there; cut packaging but create more food waste; create a heavily mechanised closed loop society but fewer jobs, erect wind turbines but impinge on the view. 

There is no computer programme that can tell you what to do. Good science can give you the facts to have a reasoned debate but ultimately you’ll have to engage all the stakeholders in a debate and find consensus.

4. What skills will be in most demand in the Sustainability Sector in the next 20 years? 

Bring the points above together and you have people skills, building partnerships and innovation. 

More people in our industry need to learn how business ticks before they ask it to change and become more sustainable.     If you’re young do a blue chip graduate training course, learn how business buys, sells and markets itself. 

You’ve got to understand a wide range of sustainability issues rather than be highly knowledgeable about a few. You’ve got to be able to deal with ambiguity; there is never, ever a neat, easy answer.

Finally, you need courage, resilience the ability to keep pushing when doors slam in your face. There are easier jobs. Better paid jobs. But ultimately none as emotionally rewarding and fascinating as sustainability.

Read More Global Sustainability Leader Interviews