The idea, to which the bank has committed pounds lm over five years, is a simple one. With its highly visible commitment to ethical banking, the co-operative was already aware that many of its small- to medium-sized business customers had nowhere to turn for advice on environmental issues.
"We encourage customers to take a responsible attitude towards the environment," says Terry Thomas, the bank's managing director. "But the majority of environmental consultancies only provide services tailored to the needs of big business."
Business executives, he says, are being placed under increasing pressure on ecological issues, both in terms of their processes and their final products, but no one is coming forward with solutions.
Having defined the problem, the bank looked for a local solution. Based in Manchester itself, the bank was aware that the concentration of higher education institutions in the twin cities of Manchester and Salford - 50,000 students and more than 12,000 staff - offered a treasure house of expertise just waiting to be raided.
The four universities were quickly convinced of the mutual benefits of the proposed centre. Professor John Spencer of Salford University, who chaired the joint universities working party, is enthusiastic.
"This has really captured the imagination of our academics," he says. "There are already many courses which include an ecological component, from chemistry and engineering to business. And increasingly we and our students who go into industry are aware of the environmental issues that are looming, and we are sometimes appalled at what is going on in some industries." The universities can offer expertise on ecosystems, waste disposal, energy conservation, climate change and a vast array of other environmental issues that affect industrial processes, says Professor Spencer.
"This is something that is going to creep up on the business world. Firms are either going to have to take a lead, like the Co-op Bank, or the Body Shop, or they are going to wait until it bears down on them."
Pressure on business is coming from two directions. A British Chamber of Commerce survey found that 18 per cent of small- and medium-sized businesses had experienced pressure from customers to improve their environmental performance. At the same time, the entry of Finland, Sweden and Austria into the EU is expected to push through more environmental legislation.
Surveys show that only a small minority of businesses have an environmental policy, have conducted an environmental audit or have access to training in environmental issues. This is in spite of the fact that the CBI reckons that businesses can reduce energy costs by between 10 and 20 per cent simply by introducing energy efficiency measures.
The director of the new centre, which will be based at Salford University, is Phil Barton, an environmentalist who has been running the Mersey Basin Project, which has improved the ecology of one of the most polluted sites in the UK.
"This is an idea whose time has come," he says. The first step, he believes, is to establish credibility. An action programme will be launched immediately by contacting businesses which the bank has identified as possibly in need of help. The service offered will concentrate on advice and practical outcomes. The aim will be toimprove the ecological quality of products, reduce costs and, where appropriate, help to develop new, ecologically sound products. The bank's customers will be offered preferential terms, but the centre will be open to all medium and small business at prices they can afford, Mr Barton says.
"What people sometimes don't understand is that by modernising old and dirty processes you can improve economic performance as well as ecological soundness," Mr Barton argues. When it is up and running, the centre will put business people in touch with academics working in the same field. It will also provide opportunities for students to become involved in ecological projects.
"We have the academic expertise, and there is enormous potential for harnessing that," says Tom Husband. "But sometimes small businesses in particular do not know where to find what they want in an academic institution. The centre will be the link between us."