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!

Annual results

This week has been dominated by preparations for the release of the Co-op Group annual results for 2016 on Thursday.

The headlines have predictably focused on the decision to write down the value of our holding in the Co-operative Bank to nil.  Although the headlines say this means we just get it to be “worthless”, in fact it simply points to the impossibility of being able to put a clear value on the shares at a time when a sale is in prospect and uncertainty is being fuelled by (often misleading) press speculation.

Highlights

The newsworthiness of this item and the fact that the write-down turned our year end profit into a loss have hidden a lot of other good news:

  • All three of our core businesses (Food, Funerals and Insurance) have shown growth in both sales and market share.
  • Strong uptake of our new membership scheme, and re-engagement of many members with the Society.
  • Operating profit was up 32% year on year.
  • Underlying profit before tax was slightly down on last year, but ahead of our budget and unsurprising given the scale of re-investment we are making across our businesses and in re-launching our brand and membership proposition.

The full press release can be found here.

Future prospects

Our markets remain fiercely competitive, of course, so the next couple of years will be challenging.  Nevertheless we now have a stable and much stronger platform from which to develop and launch our plans for the future. It was interesting that the BBC coverage ended up focusing on what markets the Co-op might choose to enter next and disrupt.  That’s quite a change from just three years ago when everyone was wondering whether the Group could even survive!