Saturday, March 8, 2008

The Power Oft Forgotten

About a year ago, Marks & Spencer, the big, British department store chain, made some bold commitments. They introduced a "100-point, five-year eco-plan" called Plan A ("because there is no plan B") and announced to the world that, by 2012, they will be carbon neutral and send no waste to landfills.

This past January, they reported slipping sales numbers and dove into some significant financial trouble. Since the beginning of 2008, their share price has fallen 18%, devaluing their business by GBP 1.6 billion (USD 3.2 billion plus).

In an article written for the Harvard Business Review the other day, Sir Stuart Rose, M&S's CEO, reassured us that Plan A is not in danger. "Despite the tough consumer climate and the reaction to our sales results, we are sticking to Plan A. There are compelling commercial--as well as moral--reasons to do so."

I don't doubt that Sir Stuart and the other decision makers at M&S are morally committed to Plan A. I don't believe for a second, however, that the decision to keep Plan A was anything other than economic.

And that's good news.

It's evidence of the power we, as consumers, have. There are a lot of companies whose survival depends on whether we choose to buy their products or the almost identical products their competitors make. If one of those companies slips up and, say, breaks a promise to take a leaderly role in the creation of a sustainable future, they put themselves in danger.

M&S kept Plan A because its reputation (and thus, arguably, its very existence) now depends on Plan A.

It's important to remember that consumers have the ability to destroy companies. It's also important to remember that our power doesn't end there. Just as we can ensure failure, we can create huge success as well.

And I wonder why we didn't do that for M&S.

It's certainly possible that Plan A is in the wrong place at the wrong time: it's helpless in the face of some horrible DNA problem at M&S. Maybe customer service is terrible. Maybe product quality is declining. Maybe management's failing to inspire people to work.

It's also possible that Plan A isn't is as comprehensive or well managed as it needs to be. Maybe people are worried about its lack of focus on suppliers. Maybe people are suspicious about the fact that M&S hasn't "actually done a hard cost-benefit analysis" of Plan A. Maybe M&S's marketing people haven't communicated Plan A's impact well enough.

But maybe consumers simply haven't responded. Maybe Plan A is truly amazing, and maybe people know that, but maybe they don't really care.

That's scary. We should care. And I think somewhere deep down we do care. But it's easy to get cynical, easy to tune out the big picture, easy to feel small and helpless.

We're not helpless, though: we can wield immense constructive economic power. We just don't know it, or we easily forget it.

It's critical that we remember. Just as we can choose to withhold our support for a company when they disappoint us, we can choose to GIVE our support when we feel that it's warranted.

Notes: I reined this one in pretty far. Lots of places my mind wants to pull me. When have consumers wielded that "immense constructive economic power?" What does it mean that "somewhere deep down we do care?" How is it possible that M&S could go totally carbon neutral by 2012? Lots to think about. Lots to write.

One tangent I want to explore very soon is the difference between consumer movement mandated excellence and government mandated compliance. I want to think about overcompliance and contrast it with a government-led race to the middle. I'll shoot for Monday or Tuesday.

Also, thanks to Triple Pundit for directing me to Sir Stuart's HBR Green article.