Expert commentary

The Co-operative’s continuing commitment to transparency, at a time when its members and stakeholders are expecting more and more in that regard, remains an inspiration.”

When the going gets tough...

It’s been another bad year for the UK economy, and it’s been a tough year for The Co-operative – which makes this Sustainability Report all the more extraordinary when you think about the backdrop to what has been achieved during that time.

For a business that sells almost entirely in the UK, the internationalism of The Co-operative has always been heartfelt and generous. For many of its food customers, that is best seen in its unwavering commitment to Fairtrade, with total sales up from £71m in 2009 to £132m last year. As the trading environment remains very challenging, you can imagine other businesses scaling back on their Fairtrade sales – but The Co-operative is a very different kind of business.

Close to home, its commitment to an incredibly wide range of social and community issues is equally remarkable. There’s a lot of interest at the moment in the idea of ‘social return on capital’, with companies being held to account for their aggregated investment in maintaining and creating new social capital. I would urge The Co-operative to be in the vanguard of that movement, not least because it has such a good story to tell.

This is all about consistency. It’s no good highlighting a values proposition in one part of your business if your colleagues down the corridor treat those values as so much rhetorical bling. You can’t mix and match to suit changing external circumstances, and The Co-operative is almost uniquely well-placed to weather today’s economic storms by continuing to emphasise the true and lasting value of its values proposition.

For instance, take its record on fossil fuels. Its own carbon management strategy is impressive, with 98% of its electricity coming from renewables, and good progress made on meeting its target to generate 25% of that electricity from its own windfarms by 2017.

Beyond that, it supports many organisations involved in all sorts of initiatives to help decarbonise our economy, including dozens of schools, and 100% of The Co-operative Bank’s lending in the energy sector is for renewables and energy efficiency projects. The more we learn about accelerating climate change, the more obvious it becomes that world leaders will – eventually – have to move to restrict the emissions of CO2 that are causing the problem. The longer they leave it, the more draconian those measures will need to be, causing massive disruption across the entire fossil fuel sector and leaving the majority of investors very badly burned.

For the last 16 years, through its annual Sustainability Report, I’ve followed The Co-operative’s progress on critical issues like this – in the sure knowledge that where it goes, others will surely follow. It was one of the first to pioneer a ‘warts and all’ approach to corporate reporting, and its continuing commitment to transparency, at a time when its members and stakeholders are expecting more and more in that regard, remains an inspiration.

Jonathon Porritt
Jonathon Porritt is Founder Director of Forum for the Future