Business View: Green can go mainstream on the high street

But Tesco and M&S must back their environmental talk with action
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The Independent Online

Green is the colour of the moment, and last week you couldn't avoid it if you tried, as two of the biggest names on the high street, Tesco and Marks & Spencer, unveiled environmental schemes and goals.

The UK's No 1 supermarket is to plough £500m over the next five years into its efforts to bring environmentalism to the mass market, with initiatives such as a "carbon calorie counter" to help shoppers follow a low-carbon lifestyle.

M&S, meanwhile, unveiled a £200m eco-plan, including becoming carbon neutral by 2012. Tesco didn't go as far as setting itself a specific date, but Sir Terry Leahy did commit to reducing the chain's carbon footprint.

Now, cynics might rightly point out that the Competition Commission will this Tuesday unveil its first report on the £100bn grocery market, which is dominated by Tesco. Or that, regardless of which watchdog is breathing down your neck, in these environmentally aware days, any green policy is going to help boost a brand's standing with the general public - and in turn set the tills ringing.

Cynics could equally point out that powerful, profitable organisations such as Tesco and M&S could always go that extra mile, but rarely do.

But the cynics should pause for thought. Business has a big role to play in the environment, and it is not one that has been taken seriously enough by many companies. So the more groups that start making public commitments, the better. By doing that, we the public have a benchmark by which to judge companies and so decide on our own actions, whether it's to sell our shares or boycott their goods if they fail to meet their self-imposed green targets.

Even more important is the role consumer-facing companies such as Tesco and M&S can play. When brands as extraordinarily well known as these start taking environmental issues seriously, then the transformation of the green movement from a fringe concept to part of our everyday lives is truly on the way.

Talking about something and doing it are very different things. Take BP, for example, which proudly talked up its green credentials before being hit by an embarrassing run of environmental issues. On top of that came safety problems, as last week's report into the Texas oil refinery explosion showed only too well. The oil giant has gone on the offensive, rejecting claims that cost savings were put ahead of safety, but much damage to its reputation must already have been done - proof that failing to live by the standards you set yourself, be they green or otherwise, can be costly. It's a lesson Tesco and M&S would be wise to take on board.

Carphone casts its vote

Apologies for giving yet more space to the Big Brother debacle, but I couldn't help but smile at Carphone Warehouse's decision to withdraw its sponsorship of the Channel 4 programme. The mobile phone retailer soberly announced that, as long as the racism and bullying in the house continued, it was unable to associate its brand with the programme. "We had already made it clear to Channel 4 that, were this to continue, we would have to consider our position. Nothing we saw last night," it shuddered, "gave us any comfort."

All very admirable. But Big Brother, celebrity version or otherwise, has always managed to bring out the worst in people. Long before Goody vs Shetty kicked off, viewers had, over various seasons, witnessed sex, violent fights, bullying a-plenty and worse beside. Which up until now didn't seem to bother Carphone Warehouse.

Charles Dunstone is a great chief executive and has built a great company. I am sure he would vigorously disagree with what I'm about to say. But let's be honest: his announcement smacked not of "doing the right thing" but of making sure that Carphone Warehouse's name was not left out of what was, somewhat sadly, the biggest story of the week.

a.townsend@independent.co.uk

Andrew Murray-Watson is away

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