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A day in the life of Mark Sumner

Marks &  Spencer’s sustainable raw materials specialist reveals his role’s rewards and challenges.

On Mondays I get up at the crack of dawn to travel from our family home in Wakefield to London. I catch the 5.42am train to King’s Cross so I can be at my desk in Paddington by 8.15am.

Coming from Yorkshire, where everyone talks to each other and knows their neighbours, to London, where it’s complete chaos and everyone is running around, is quite a culture shock. But a lot of what we do is very strategic, so the commute gives me time to think.

We have sourcing offices in Turkey, South Asia and the Far East, so the first thing I do each morning is check my emails. We’re doing a lot of work on taking the Better Cotton Initiative, which was started two years ago in India and Pakistan, to China. It aims to improve the livelihoods of farmers and make production more sustainable. So it’s important to check in with them to make sure it’s all going to plan.

I’m part of the technical services group, a team of five with a pivotal role in the development of the strategy and policies behind Marks & Spencer’s sustainability initiative, Plan A. Everyone in the business plays a part in sustainability and I engage with our technologists and buyers on one level, deal with our marketing and PR teams on another and talk to directors about our sourcing strategy’s impact on sustainability.

My role involves looking at how we can make the materials we use in our clothing and homeware more sustainable. I also assess the sustainability of the processes that convert those raw materials into product. I spent 10 years at M&S as a technologist working on product development and innovation, so I draw on that to help understand how we can be more sustainable, but in a commercially viable way.

I’m a massive football fan, so my lunchtimes are spent looking at the football news, which is a bit depressing at the moment as my team, Wolverhampton Wanderers, aren’t doing so well.

One of the challenges of my role is explaining to our suppliers, who are from many cultures where sometimes sustainability isn’t always high on the agenda, why Plan A is important. My job is about changing mindsets, and when you see the lights come on in their eyes it’s very rewarding.

The other big challenge is the fast pace of fashion. I need to recognise the latest trends without losing sight of our longer-term objective.

One of the things I’m most proud of is that we recently recycled some of our customers’ old garments into new clothes. We held a focus group and the customers loved them. When I explained how they were made you could have heard a pin drop – they were just blown away.

The key thing to realise though, is that being sustainable isn’t easy. M&S is on a journey and aims for 50% of product to have some sort of sustainable message by 2015, rising to 100% by 2020.

I normally finish work at 6pm and during the week I stay at a flat near the office. On a Friday I return to see my wife in Wakefield, where we’re busy renovating a Victorian house into an eco-home. So I never really switch off from talking about sustainability.

Salaries for this position range from £30,000 to £35,000 (estimate provided by CVUK)


2008  Sustainable raw materials specialist, Marks & Spencer

1997  Clothing technologist, M&S

1993  Textile Engineering PhD, Manchester University

1989  Degree in Physics, Leeds University

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