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).
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.