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. 

Co-op: back to the future

Spent yesterday visiting the wonderful Beamish open air museum here in the North-East. As always one of the highlights was going round the village high street from the early 1900s: a high street dominated by the Co-op’s grocery and haberdashery stores.

I loved the nostalgia of looking along shelves to see some brands that are still going strong (Colman’s mustard, Rowntree chocolate …), and other products that have long since disappeared.  Lots of Co-operative Wholesale Society own brand products too, of course, many of them manufactured and packaged in our own factories and proudly labelled with their origins.  Early examples of the importance of knowing a product’s provenance.

And there were the posters urging customers to “Join Us” as members – something we are still encouraging people to do today.
   Over half a million customers have signed up to become members since the New Year – so we are well on our way to the target of one million new members this year.  But we need to do more than sign people up.  We need to reconnect with the local community too, in the same way that the store at Beamish was once the heart of the community in Annfield Plain.

So I am delighted with the £9 million we have given to 4,000 good causes around the UK and that we have announced in the last week.  This is the first fruit of our 1% donations on all own brand products bought by members since the relaunch of our Membership offer in September. As the scheme builds we hope to be giving £20 million a year in this way: that’s serious money.  I hope the pioneers and the many colleagues who worked for Co-op down through the last 170 years would be proud of what we are still able to do in the spirit of the service they gave their local communities.

Council and Senate

I am getting a little bit behind with my blogging, but ten days ago we had a dinner for Board and executive team members with members from the Senate of the National Members Council, to mark Richard Pennycook’s departure as chief executive.   This was a good occasion, not only because of the excellent food and wine (exclusively Co-op own brand products of course!), and a memorable farewell address from Richard, but also because of the chance to build informal relationships between Board and Senate members.

Co-op democracy

The ten members of Senate are elected from the 100 members of the National Members Council (many shown in the image below), and as well as leading the work of the Council they are a forum to which the Board can refer for guidance on how Council might react to particular courses of action being considered.  To carry out this latter role effectively requires the building of trust between individual directors and Senate members, so that we can speak openly with each other and yet know that confidentiality will be respected.

Co-op logo Council

Role of MNDs

In my role as Member Nominated Director I am fortunate to have had more opportunities than many of my colleagues on the Board to get to know our Senate members and the wider Council.  This is both through attending Council meetings and because I am a member the rather strangely named Stakeholder Working Group (which acts as a point of liaison between Board and the Council President and Vice-Presidents), and last year I also served on working parties relating to the election process for MNDs and the development of the “Co-op Compass” as a way of measuring our performance against key objectives.

Holding the Board to account

The Co-op’s governance give the Council a vital role as representatives of the interests and priorities of our members, holding the Board and individual directors to account, providing inputs on possible future direction and acting in many ways as the “conscience” of the Society – making sure that we strive to hold true to co-operative Values and Principles and high ethical standards.  At times dialogue can feel uncomfortable – when Council challenges a decision or proposal from the Board.  That discomfort is essential and can be creative if we are to ensure that the Board really does steer a course that is in line with what our member owners would like. It can and does have a very positive influence for the good.  But there is always a risk that it can descend into confrontation and misunderstanding if mutual trust is replaced by suspicion or an assumption that either the Board is wanting to undermine our Values or that the Council is just wanting to create obstructions.

The way to make sure that Council-Board relationships add value to the Co-op is twofold:  firstly – clear, open and early communication; secondly – strong personal relationships.  We can always do better at both, and as an MND and member of the Stakeholder Working Group I believe I have a particular responsibility to help make sure we continue to invest in making dialogue and mutual understanding as effective as possible.  Social interaction such as the dinner are a really important way of creating human relationships that will then make more business-focused discussions increasingly productive.

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!

 

Lending a Hand

I spent yesterday stacking shelves and helping customers at my local store – Framwellgate Moor.  Thanks to Vicky and Kate for making me welcome and showing me the ropes – and it was also good to see Lloyd and Michael the Regional and Area managers passing through on a tour of the shops during the morning!  Framwellgate Moor store only opened in the summer, but it is already achieving and indeed exceeding its sales targets thanks to the friendly and hard-working staff team, and this is also reflected in an excellent customer satisfaction score, well above the national average.

lloyd-michael-vicky-kate-at-fwellgate

pgc-stacking-shelves-at-fwellgate

For me it was great to see things from a shop floor angle, and gain much greater familiarity with the range of products that we stock and with the customer experience.  Lots of colleagues from the support centre at the Co-op are encouraged to spend a day helping out under our “Lend A Hand” scheme, as an important gesture of support at this busiest period of the year, but it also keeps us all rooted in the realities of our business by experiencing the “frontline”.

Morale is high at Framwellgate, but it is good that in the last week or so our latest “Talkback” survey of our 70,000 colleagues across the Group has shown a strongly improving trend in colleague “engagement” right across the country.   In a way this improvement is not surprising given the Back to Being Co-op training most colleagues have been through this year that has helped re-instil pride in our history what we stand for, the excitement of our rebranding and relaunch of Co-op membership, and the sense of satisfaction that comes from a renewed confidence in the outstanding quality and value of our own brand products.  Combined with the positive sales momentum we have experienced throughout the year, I was expecting to see the figures on an upward trajectory.  But nonetheless the improvement is important further evidence that “the Co-op is back” and going places.  If we are going to succeed there is no doubt this can only be built through the enthusiasm, skill and dedication of our colleagues as they meet the needs of our members and customers and serve their local communities.

kate-at-framwellgate

A great note on which to finish before Christmas!