The Greening of Marks and Spencer: An example of creative leadership

January 15, 2007

Stuart Rose announces a policy document that will anchor Marks and Spencer’s green credentials. It commits the retailer to a range of specific actions at an estimated cost of some £200 million over the next five years. The plan has been welcomed by a range of commentators. Yet, closer inspection suggests it is a shrewd concession to corporate responsibility rather than a radical move that might frighten traditional commercial investors. It can also be seen as an example of creative leadership.

In a flurry of personal interviews, Stuart Rose today announced a hundred-point, five year plan for M&S that aims at re-engineering the companies activities to meet a range of socially responsible goals from carbon neutrality, ethical-trading, sustainable-sourcing, and health-promoting products and projects.

He told the BBC that the company has estimated five year-costs of the plan to be in the region of £200 million pounds. In one interview, Green in his ‘show and tell’ mode had brought along plastic bottles and a coat (purporting to ) incorporate the plastic from similar bottles after recycling.

Don’t frighten the City

‘Dont frighten the city’. It is no bad rule for corporate leaders. So how to balance customer demand for greater corporate responsibility with shareholder pressure fo returns on investment? I would argue that the way forward is though creative leadership. When Richard Branson wanted to show his ethical credentials recently, he announced a redirection of research effort in a search for profitable innovations which would reduce global warming. Green’s estimates for ‘doing good’
seem likely to add no more that 0.5% to sales at the till. He also judges that less directly the strategy will add to the company’s competitiveness through consumers seeking to support ethical corporations.

There is no plan B

The company has labelled this Plan A. ‘Because there is no Plan B’. Echoes for other charismatic leadership assertions from the past: ‘no going back’ (Tony Blair), or ‘This baby’s not for turning’..(modifed from one of Margaret Thatcher’s speeches). Understandable, plan A is not being left to chance. An extensive marketing campaign to explain and promote its virtues is planned for later this Spring.

Questions worth asking

Isn’t it all just rhetoric? Aren’t private companies, including M&S still out to maximize profits? Or have the perceived values of consumers helped shape a greener corporate landscape and indirectly are helping create the (created and creative) leaders we deserve?