Leeds University Union shop

Great visit with Head of Franchise Martin Rogers to see the new Co-op franchise store at Leeds University Union.  Only open for less than three months, it has already seen sales increase by 150% – a response to the excellent range and smart appearance of the shop and a recognition of shared values between the student body and the Co-op.  Run by the Student Union with a mix of permanent and student staff, it benefits from a dynamic team led by Karen the Union’s Retail Director. With wide aisles and the greatest number of self scan terminals in our estate, the shop looks really attractive, and the footfall while I was there was impressive.

Before visiting I had thought of university franchise stores mainly in terms of their being an excellent way of recruiting young people to become members of the Co-op and to get them to understand the Co-op values difference.  

However, what struck me forcibly on my visit is that these stores will also give us an opportunity to listen more clearly to the up-and-coming generation of shoppers, helping us to attune our ranges and sourcing approach to their needs.  For example, the greater proportionate demand for vegan and vegetarian food can allow us to try new ways of presenting that offer; and their demands on issues like removing plastic bottles will challenge us to move faster in an environmentally sustainable direction.  We already have a free water refilling service in this store, but have also introduced today a new range of water bottles made from recycled cardboard and plant-based plastics – Just Water.  

I was also pleased to see that rather than the Costa coffee point that we have in many stores, the Student Union had insisted on a Fairtrade coffee point! A further benefit of this store is understanding better the needs of the Chinese ethnic community, as students from the Far East form a significant proportion of the Leeds student body.

All in all this felt like the start of a dynamic two-way partnership in Leeds. Co-op has much to offer them in terms of an appropriate range and professional experience, and already they are seeing greater footfall in their building as a result, whilst we in turn have much to learn from their focus on a youth clientele.  Roll on many more franchise outlets in other universities!

Global Impact Award

Excellent news last week that the Co-op won The Hermes Global Impact Award at the Retail Week Awards.

Championing Fairtrade products, contributing to local community, launching the Bright Future programme to help victims of Modern Slavery, recycling and the Future of Food strategy were all called out as examples of what puts Co-op ahead of most other businesses.

One of the judges said: “If it was about a single initiative or a campaign there were good entries, but in terms of multiple initiatives over time and the aggregate impact they have, the Co-op just stands out on its own. “The grocer shines a light on important issues like slavery and water – not always the ones that are popular. There’s a pure intent. Tackling modern slavery by offering a path back into employment is a great approach.”

Another judge commented: “The Co-op consistently delivers. It’s cultural across its business – the grocer doesn’t just talk about it, it lives and breathes it.  The Co-op has a strong, genuine sense of duty and community. It is properly entwined with every part of the organisation and it deserves to be properly recognised for that. The Co-op is staying true to its purpose of ‘championing a better way of doing business’, which makes it the worthy winner of this award.”

Reading these plaudits is most encouraging, and having just spent this morning reviewing the 2018 Co-op Way sustainability report at the Risk and Audit Committee, I know we have plenty more positive news to report on the sustainability front.  I was particularly pleased that the Committee met once again with our assurance providers, DNV, and that we considered their report at the same time as our draft financial accounts for the last year.  This to me symbolises the way that we give equal weight to our ethical and financial performance, recognising that the two can and should reinforce each other in a virtuous circle of creating a stronger Co-op the more we can be seen to be contributing to stronger communities and a more sustainable world.

Final Fairtrade Fortnight update

Coffee with Mike Gidney – CEO of the Fairtrade Foundation (pictured above) – was an excellent chance to catch up with an old colleague and to mull over possible future initiatives for Fairtrade. We met in Esquires cafe in Durham – which as you can see was appropriately merchandised to support the fortnight.

We were particularly interested to discuss how to make careers in ethical food more accessible to students – recognising that for many the first steps in a career path would be in larger company where they could learn skills, but that retaining a focus on ethics in their early careers could then sometimes be challenging. We generated ideas around co-ordination of internship placements by the Foundation, creating positive peer support groups and tying more ethical inputs into initiatives such as Grocery Girls being promoted by the Food CEO of the Co-op, Jo Whitfield.

We also spent time reflecting on the Grocery Code Adjudicator, whose establishment Mike and I both campaigned for when at Traidcraft, and the irony that she was currently investigating the Co-op’s buying practices when Co-op was probably amongst the most ethical of all retailers. Although we await the outcome of those investigations, we both agreed that the focus all retailers were now having to put on handling supplier relationships better was a major step forward. The improvements in god practice across the major retailers in the last two years have really been very marked. However, the scope of the Code was limited to UK suppliers at the moment, so did not really provide direct help to Fair-trade and other overseas producer groups – perhaps that’s a next stage to campaign for.

And then on Friday I was at the AGM of Shared Interest – an organisation that lends to fair trade producers who cannot access commercial finance, and on whose Board I have served for four years. It had been an encouraging year for Shared Interest, and it was inspiring to hear of the impact that well-judged lending could have in equipping small groups for expansion that could extend fair trade benefits to hundreds more workers. But chatting to other supporters – many also keen members of the Co-op – it was also clear that they remain disappointed by the degree to which our stores can get behind Fairtrade Fortnight. There are practical and logistical barriers to be overcome, but I think they are right that we need to try harder in future years.

More Fairtrade Fortnight activities

Just back from giving a talk at Cullercoats Methodist Church on Saturday. We had an audience of about fifty church members and Co-op members/supporters, and the event was organised by Co-op Council member Mark Ormston. Those attending included Sir Alan Campbell, the local MP and Deputy Chief Whip of the Labour Party, and Dan Crowe – Vice-President of the Co-op’s National Members’ Council.

Mark Ormston, myself and Sir Alan

I gave a very brief overview of the development of the Fair Trade movement and then talked about some of the key product categories sold by Co-op: wine, sugar and chocolate/cocoa. I was able to give some colour to my illustrations be describing from my own experience at Traidcraft how producers of these types of product often choose to use Fairtrade benefits. We discussed in particular education, access to clean and safe water and creating opportunities for women.

I then talked about the challenges in Fairtrade at the moment, with reference to the decisions of Cadbury’s, Nestle and Sainsbury’s to drop the Fairtrade Mark from some of their key product lines. We also discussed the commercial problems that Traidcraft has recently faced.

My message was to take heart from the fact that new commitments to Fairtrade were still being made: Waitrose has just announced that it has taken all its chocolate confectionery Fairtrade (something Co-op has done for many years fo course!). And Fairtrade has still had a huge impact on these big organisations, and that big corporates now had to take sustainability very much more seriously. Nestle, Cadbury’s and Sainsbury’s all still were pursuing ethical sourcing schemes, and often applying them now across their whole supply chains rather than just on Fairtrade lines. Whilst these schemes were less impactful in depth, they brought benefits to many millions more producers.

But I then emphasised that we need to keep Fairtrade thriving so that the pressure to run these schemes continued and that everyone had a part to play. As consumers our individual buying choices mattered and send important signals to companies – we should never underestimate how much our own purchases matter: so keep buying Fairtrade (and see my call for taking up the Co-op Fairtrade Pledge on my blog below!).

We can also all join in campaigns and petitions – such as Fairtrade Foundation’s current campaign for a living wage for all cocoa farmers in Ivory Coast. I could show form my own experience how just a few thousand campaign postcards could be enough to get a meeting with a minister of European Commissioner to press for change.

And finally I encouraged people to carry on buying from the fair trade pioneers such as Traidcraft, Divine, Cafedirect and Liberation Foods (as well as buying Co-op Fairtrade products, since Co-op convenience stores could only stock a limited range of their goods). The pioneers are needed to keep standards high, to enthuse and mobilise supporters at grassroots level and to push forward innovation in Fairtrade.

Interestingly this was the first talk on Fairtrade that I had given with a Co-op rather than an exclusively Traidcraft emphasis. What struck me forcefully was just what a difference Co-op and Traidcraft working in partnership together has made – the first Cafedirect products on supermarket shelves, the first fair-trade wine, pioneering of new categories such as charcoal and rubber gloves, sourcing fair trade coffins from Bangladesh. And Co-op has also partnered with Divine since 2000 when it took all its own brand chocolate Fairtrade boring with Divine’s Kuala Kokoo co-operative. Partnerships like this are a great expression of Co-operation in practice – and they really work!

Also in the last week I gave a talk to students at St Chad’s College on Fairtrade matters and ran my own Traidcraft stall at our local church. And we are still only half way through Fairtrade Fortnight!

Fairtrade Fortnight pledge

Take the Co-op Fairtrade Pledge and help some of the world’s poorest farmers

Fairtrade Fortnight is underway (25 Feb – 10 March) and I’m asking our Co-op members and customers to make a commitment to Fairtrade that will help some of the poorest farmers in the world get a fairer chance in life. 

All you have to do is take the ‘Co-op Fairtrade Pledge’ by swapping a regular product you buy for a Fairtrade alternative. 

It could be a chocolate bar, a bottle of wine, a jar of coffee or packet of biscuits. It’s a simple switch, but if all Co-op members and customers did this it would make a huge difference to people’s lives giving them greater financial security and the chance to improve education and healthcare for their communities.

Famous for Fairtrade

At the Co-op we’ve been famous for Fairtrade for decades. That’s because we believe it’s the ‘gold standard’ for an ethical trading relationship which addresses poverty and exploitation and gives the farmers themselves control and choice over how they use the money they earn.

The Fairtrade mark means farmers are guaranteed a fair price for their goods and are cushioned against dramatic changes in world markets – like the crash in cocoa prices that took place in 2016. In West Africa, where 60% of cocoa beans are grown, that price crash means families are struggling to survive. 

I’m pleased to say that all the cocoa we use in our Co-op chocolate and as an ingredient in any Co-op product is 100% Fairtrade. That means our cocoa farmers have been able to maintain their livelihoods. 

And our commitment goes well beyond cocoa.    

While other retailers are stepping back from Fairtrade and introducing alternative ethical schemes that cause shoppers confusion, at the Co-op we’re staying true to the values the Fairtrade mark stands for. 

Women leaders

But we always want to do more. So over the last year we’ve increased our commitment to women cocoa farmers in West Africa. We’re funding the Fairtrade Africa’s Womens’ leadership school projects, which are working with women in Côte d’Ivoire to empower them as future leaders. 

The projects train them in business skills such as decision making, resource management and leadership. We’re also working with Kuapa Kokoo, a cocoa growing co-op in Ghana, to give their women workers access to training.

Take the pledge

By taking the Co-op Fairtrade Pledge you’ll be playing your part to make trade fairer for some of the most disadvantaged communities in the world. And you’ll discover how fantastic Fairtrade products taste. If you’re planning any Fairtrade events where you live Tweet @coopuk so we can spread the word. 

Future of Food

 

Reflecting on the past year, one of things of which I am most proud is the Co-op’s development of our “Future of Food” strategy.  Building on many years of pioneering ethical and responsible sourcing of products, we have been working hard to revitalise our commitments for the next decade and beyond.  In a world where we are all challenged by issues of environmental sustainability, its great to see us setting ambitious targets to build on our existing strengths in conjunction with our partners, taking action on what matters most.

Our goals revolve around three areas:

  • Sourcing products that are created with respect for people and planet – sustainability, health, reduced waste, reduced use of plastics, agricultural innovation.
  • Treating people fairly – working for justice in supply chains through more Fairtrade, empowering vulnerable workers and women, tackling water poverty, supporting British farmers and ensuring that all our suppliers get a fair deal.
  • Learning and celebrating together – educating and empowering future generations to make informed choices, working with partners and sharing good practice, helping everyone understand the true value of food.

Our programmes and plans have been developed after a lot of consultation with our supply partners, NGOs and academic experts as well as colleagues in all parts of our business. Having attended several workshops around this process as well as the launch event, I have been impressed by the hugely positive feedback they have given about the Co-op difference they can already see and our qualitatively stronger commitment to partnership.

You can read about our plans in much more detail on our website:  https://food.coop.co.uk/food-ethics/future-of-food

2017 AGM

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.

2. Fairtrade

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.

Re-elected!

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.

Fairtrade Fortnight – Co-op’s cocoa initiative

In the last week it has been great to catch up at various events with Mike Gidney, Chief Executive of the Fairtrade Foundation who for many years used to work with me at Traidcraft where he used to be Director of Policy while I was chief exec.

Mike Gidney               Fairtrade mark

Update on Fairtrade

Mike was able to share the good news that the value of Fairtrade sales in the UK rose slightly in 2016 despite the challenges posed by changes in the EU sugar regime which have severely hit Fairtrade sugar sales.  Given food price deflation, the underlying volume growth (which matters most to producers) was about 8%.

At one event a producer from Divine Chocolate (or rather from Koapa Kokoo the co-operative which owns and supplies Divine), impressed Co-op Group staff with her simple explanation of how selling cocoa on Fairtrade terms had allowed her community to achieve clean water, build a school and provide decent toilets for themselves.

Co-op’s cocoa initiative

But for me the stand-out event of the fortnight has been Co-op Group’s announcement that from May 2017 all the cocoa in any of our own brand products (not just the chocolate bars) will in future be sourced on Fairtrade terms. We are the first business in the world to make a commitment like this, and it means our purchases of Fairtrade cocoa will go up an impressive five-fold, with an extra £500,000 per annum in Fairtrade premiums flowing through to our producer suppliers on top of the value of the coca sales themselves.  Co-op is challenging other businesses to follow suit, as this is how we can really achieve scale of impact.

Chocolate report

It is a source of justifiable pride that Co-op is still leading the way in Fairtrade – perhaps particularly after the disappointing announcement that the Fairtrade logo will shortly disappear from Cadbury’s Dairy Milk (shame on them!).  I am pleased to have been able to play a small part by providing Board-level encouragement for our commitment to Fairtrade, but the credit must go to our Fairtrade sourcing manager Brad Hill whose commitment and focus over many years has been absolutely exemplary.

 

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!