Just back from the Co-op AGM in Manchester. This was an inspiring event, with a good turnout of members, impressive debut speech from our new Chief Executive Steve Murrells and a great sense of an organisation now back in a stable position and beginning to think more about areas in which we can challenge the status quo as well as extend our trading.
For me there were four particular highlights:
1. Modern Slavery
We gave great attention to our new commitment to leading work on Modern Slavery. It was horrific to learn that there are thought to be 21 million victims of slavery worldwide – more than at any other time in history. And it is estimated that there are 10,000 slaves in the UK today. We are committed at the Co-op not only to working hard to ensure that our supply chains are free of this scourge, but to providing survivors with paid employment to help restore their dignity and sense of self worth. There was a powerful and emotional video sharing the story of one of the three former slaves who have been given permanent employment by Co-op, together with a commitment to taking on 30 more this year working with two charities (City Hearts and Snowdrop) in our Bright Future initiative. It was great to get an endorsement from members of our plans to campaign to encourage other companies to do likewise.
This is a picture of me with Brad Hill, who heads up the Co-op’s Fairtrade work.
More good news on the Co-op’s commitment to Fairtrade, with our volumes of FT sales (18.5% up on last year) now over-taking Tesco’s to make us the second largest Fairtrade retailer in the UK. Only Sainsbury’s sells more, and with their momentum appearing to wane it is clear that our support for the movement is increasingly crucial. Our focus on maximising impact for producers is driving our new initiatives. Having taken all the cocoa in own brand products Fairtrade this year, we are now going to do the same with tea, coffee and bananas. So not only will these product categories continue to be 100% Fairtrade, but we will always source them on fair trade terms when they are used as ingredients in other products too.
It was also great to hear that because of our work with One Foundation (donating 3 pence per litre on sales of our bottled waters to water projects in Kenya and Malawi) we are the only UK retailer to be invited to join a new UN backed initiative (the Global Investment Fund for Water) to promote clean water.
3. Waste and recycling
New commitments on making all our food packaging recyclable by 2023 (though there is perhaps still more to do on reducing packaging). We will also be working with FareShare to redistribute the food for 20 million meals. These are great initiatives – although in my view we still need to do more to tackle the root problems behind food waste.
It was also great to see the Co-op’s first hybrid diesel/electric powered lorry outside the conference centre! It is the only 26 tonne lorry of this type in the UK, and we are trialling it as a way of improving fuel efficiency and reducing noise.
4. Community engagement
The launch of our Member Pioneer scheme, which over time will lead to 1500 activists working in the localities we serve to mobilise our members behind improving the well-being of their communities. About 60 Pioneers have been recruited so far (from 450 applicants) and we have started to train and resource them.
Lemn Sissay, the poet and Chancellor of Manchester University, has agreed to be Ambassador for the scheme, and gave a rousing speech on the importance of communities and also on our embracing migrants and refugees (recognising that migration is part of all our stories and integral to being human). This initiative promises to make our community support even more meaningful than the money given to good causes: £9 million distributed just last month as a result of our 5+1 membership scheme, and a further £6 million raised to fight against loneliness with the Red Cross (nearly double our target figure). I hope tackling loneliness will become a big feature of our local work going forward – with hard evidence that nothing does this better than encouraging people to volunteer and become engaged with local initiatives.
Oh, and then there was the good news that I have been re-elected for a second term as Member Nominated Director! Although the voting numbers weren’t announced formally at the meeting I am told that I received over 40,000 of the first preference votes, with the other two candidates being on just under 20,000 each. I am humbled and delighted by this endorsement, and look forward to the next two years of serving the Society.