Sustainability reporting

In Manchester yesterday to meet with DNV GL – the assurance firm that works with the Co-op Group on our annual Sustainability report.

Social reporting at Traidcraft

I am a fan of such reports as a way of encouraging companies to take more action about their impacts on society and the environment and as an important form of transparency.  At Traidcraft we were an early pioneer of social reporting and won many prizes for initiatives in this area.  I found producing social accounts a really effective way of keeping the organisation focused on our wider mission goals and non-financial impacts. I learned that social and sustainability reports need to be set up in a way that will be effective as a real business tool and a force for change and improvement – rather than being seen as a public relations vehicle addressed largely to an audience of sustainability experts as is too often the case.

Co-op sustainability reports

Co-op’s reports have over the years been seen as leading the way in good practice reporting, and they certainly make very interesting reading (see https://www.co-operative.coop/ethics/sustainability-report to read the 2015 report, published in the autumn of 2016).

2015 Co-op Sustainability report

Lots of evidence in here of the Co-op putting its ethical principles into practice across our engagement with supply chains, local communities, environmental impact and colleagues/members.  Really encouraging to see the data set out clearly, some really impressive examples of what we have been delivering, and it’s good to be able to identify areas where we could still do better too.

Revitalising the Co-op Way

However, even at the Co-op there is scope to make improvements to our approach, if we want sustainability targets and reporting to be truly as embedded in the organisation as our financial and commercial goals. And although we have continued to place a lot of emphasis on sustaining our ethical trading principles, as you would expect, we have to recognise that improving our reporting and systems has not been a major focus of attention during the Rescue and Rebuild phases of the Co-op’s turnaround, when we have (rightly) had to focus on restoring our basic viability as a business that can serve its members well.

But we are now in a position to move on from that stage. So it is great that we have been putting a lot of effort over the past year into revitalising our ethical principles through the work of the Coop Way Policy working groups, where senior colleagues and Council members have worked together to review and update our ethical policies across the board.  We have also identified the key strategic areas on which the Group Board needs to be held to account by the Members’ Council in the work on setting a “Co-op Compass”, and these include demonstrating leadership in delivering social impact.  These welcome initiatives now need to be worked through into our business planning prepare for our Renewal phase from 2018-2020.

Sustainability reports and targets

As a member of the Board’s Risk and Audit Committee I am encouraging work to improve the profile of our Sustainability Report and ensure it gets the in-depth attention it deserves.  I would like to see us setting a smaller number of longer-term (say 3 to 5 year) targets focusing on those areas where we think we can make a big difference and that are core to the nature of our work.  Of course we would still need to monitor, track and improve many other social and environmental indicators as well, to ensure we are delivering good practice across the board in line with our values and principles.  But by setting longer-term plans and targets in a number of key areas we are more likely to be able to integrate our aspirations more fully into our resource allocation and planning. And that will be the key to making real change happen.

I am encouraged that the Co-op’s team is also beginning to develop new systems to measure our impact as well as our activity, which is an area in which most sustainability reports are relatively weak: if we get this right we will reinforce our reputation as a trail blazer in sustainability reporting.

Fairtrade wine and chocolate

Over the festive season our family got through quite a few bottles of Fairtrade wine from the Co-op!  The first fairly traded wines in the early 2000s were co-branded with Traidcraft, where I was then chief exec, and which was at that time the only UK importer of wine from fair trade producers.  The initiative was so successful that it proved the business case for developing the international standards required for a Fairtrade mark on wine as a new category, opening up a much wider potential market.  It was a great example of Co-op and Traidcraft pioneering a new area of fair trade together.

ft-wine

Today the Co-op accounts for two thirds of all Fairtrade wine sold in the UK, and indeed we represent almost one third of the total global sales. That’s over 8 million bottles a year – or 16 bottles a minute!  A huge success.

In November Mondelez announced that bars of Cadbury Dairy Milk would cease to carry the Fairtrade mark, and that instead they would be using their own in-house scheme to help cocoa farmers.  It’s a disappointing move, and the first time the Fairtrade mark will have come off a significant product.  But will consumers really trust a scheme run by a major global multinational?  Won’t they get confused by yet another logo making ethical claims, when the Fairtrade mark is already one of the best recognised and most trusted logos in the UK?

I suspect this will be prove to be something of an own goal for the Cadbury brand, making even Nestle look more ethical than Cadbury for the first time – given the fact that KitKats carry the mark!  So much for Cadbury’s much vaunted Quaker heritage. This has the hallmark an initiative driven from a global HQ looking to cut costs, and not realising how much better recognised and valued Fairtrade is in the UK market than anywhere else.  So here’s hoping the decision will get reversed as the implications sink in.

But the big question people are asking me is: will the Co-op be tempted to follow suit and downgrade its commitment to Fairtrade? I really don’t think that’s going to happen – and I would certainly fight hard against any proposal that might be made to that effect.  Fairtrade values are so well-aligned with the ethics that underpin the Co-op Way, and with our commitment to working with small producers and co-operatives, that it would make no sense for us to appear to move away from such standards. And we know that our members consistently and strongly voice their support for Fairtrade.  Indeed, if other companies choose to move away from supporting Fairtrade (which I hope they will not, as it would clearly be bad news for Fairtrade producers around the world) it could even play to the Co-op’s benefit by underlining the real commitment to ethical trade that differentiates us from so many other food industry players.

So rather than seeing this as the start of a slippery slope, I think we should look forward to further announcements in Fairtrade Fortnight at the end of February, which will underline the Co-op’s determination to do the right thing and support the millions of farmers around the world who are daily benefiting from the sale of Fairtrade products.  And that will be worth opening another bottle or two of Fairtrade wine to celebrate!