If Marks & Spencer's supply chain agenda was mirrored by all major retailers, the world would be a better place. With suppliers in 70 countries and some two million people working for the company across thousands of factories and farms, the giant high street retailer is taking its social and environmental impact seriously – and with great success.
Launched at the beginning of 2007, M&S's Plan A sustainability program is renowned for it's comprehensive and far-reaching goals to create step changes in its global supply chain. Its 180 commitments to be achieved by 2015 include targets on ethical trade, sustainable sourcing and energy efficiency, all backed by financial incentives for the M&S buying teams.
The company boldly states that it wants to become "the world's most sustainable major retailer" and after sweeping the decks at several major sustainability awards in 2012, including winning the supply chain category at the Guardian Sustainable Business Awards (GSBAs), it looks like the retailer is en route to achieve just that.
But how does winning awards help the company and how can this type of recognition prove useful to a business?
"The number one thing about winning an award is the internal recognition, the pat on the back for the people who have really been doing a great job, working to drive these decisions forward and giving them the recognition they deserve," Elman says.
This is all the more significant in the case of supply chain. With its vast, global supply chain that M&S reckons accounts for 80% of its footprint, work to deliver sustainability targets and boost ethical and environmental standards is dependent on more than just one department.
"Because of the way Plan A is run within M&S, it's not run by the Plan A team, it's run by thousands of people across the business," Elman explains.
"The award shows that a) they're doing a great job and they're being recognised for that, and b) they're leaders in what they're doing, which is good to know, but also a good reminder that they need to keep pushing the bar higher and moving forward to make sure they remain there."
M&S may be a shining example of success within the sustainable business sphere (in 2010-11 alone it delivered £70m in net benefits, all of which is being put back into its sustainability work) but as with any company, reputation is crucial.
"Winning these sorts of awards and getting the coverage it generates, it's important to our reputation and to our brand," Elman says. "As big as we are and as well known as we are, the credibility of what we do is affected significantly by what others think about us and by how it is played out in the media."
While progression in sustainability is often championed internally, it can prove difficult for larger companies to communicate this externally without being accused of greenwash. Achieving the independent validation of a well-known award gives a strong external message that the business is serious about its environmental and social impact.
"As well as the internal and supplier recognition, it's great recognition externally for customers and other people who are looking at our business," says Elman.
Along with the prestige and positive momentum awards success brings, there's also the opportunity to share best practice and learn from others, Elman adds.
"It's really interesting to see who else has entered, what they're up to ... because we don't have all the answers because there's lots to learn out there."
So, what's next for Plan A? Elman says winning awards should merely mark the beginning of the company's sustainability stronghold.
"We want to lead in this space and therefore we're continually trying to push ourselves, looking at what others are doing, at what we need to be doing more of and what others expect of us.”
"For us it's about scale and pace," he adds. "We don't want to be doing good things with a few of the factories and farms involved, we want to be doing all the right things in all the factories and all the farms with all our raw materials and for all our products.
"Winning awards helps you get the recognition that you are doing that and you're on the right path. You then say 'if that's what we did this year, what are going to do next year?'”