This isn't just eco-friendly ...

While the announcement, and the cost associated with it, is significant, the news that Marks & Spencer is to spend £200m over five years positioning itself as the UK's greenest retailer is no real surprise.

If there is another major British brand in the ascendancy, whose customers would lap up the idea of high-profile environmental lead-taking, we can't think of one. While most businesses would baulk at the idea of spending the equivalent of £40m a year to improve its environmental reputation, for M&S it simply provides yet another fillip to its recent outstanding business renaissance.

Make no mistake: this is an important piece of marketing activity for M&S, with a great deal of thought put into how it fits with, and will enhance, the retailer's brand perception among the public, investors and the media. Recent in-store and advertising activity proclaiming the company's credentials on green packaging and its sustainable product sourcing has lifted the brand and product sales; in the light of the latest announcement, however, that work has clearly been little more than a supporting act.

The retailer's chief executive, Stuart Rose, has unveiled an 'eco-plan' that includes no fewer than 100 action points, from becoming carbon-neutral - principally from energy usage reduction - and a commitment to send no waste to landfill by 2012, to improving sourcing and ethical trading and helping customers and employees lead healthier lifestyles.

It has already been pointed out that the carbon footprint of M&S is relatively low compared with businesses in other industries, yet that does a disservice to the effect that the actions of M&S and our other major retailers will have on commerce generally. Aside from the immediate effect on supply chains, yet more significant will be the change in public environmental expectations of all businesses.

In his announcement of 'Plan A' - apparently, 'there is no Plan B' - Rose observed that this will be the year in which the whole environmental debate will snowball. It is not the first such claim, but with M&S, Tesco, Virgin, HSBC and BSkyB all lining up behind the climate change cause, there is a growing belief that environmentalism could finally be going mainstream.

It is safe to assume that M&S' announcement was not made without due consideration to the effect that it would have on the company's share price, not least as it was accompanied by a promise that the cost would not be passed on to customers - and it is here that there is some evidence to support Rose's claim.

At the time of writing, M&S' share price was up 4.5% on the day. Had the £200m been of a different flavour, but with a similar short-term hit to revenues, the share price would have headed rapidly in the other direction. I am reminded of James Murdoch's 2004 announcement to the City that BSkyB would spend heavily, including on marketing and advertising, to drive subscriber numbers - and the rapid sell-off of shares that ensued.

And so it is that M&S and Rose have exposed, early in 2007, that there is a significant appetite among consumers and the City for brands that are prepared to build their environmental credentials in a way that will equip them better for long-term survival. The reception for this 'eco-plan' will ensure that others are not far behind.


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