Video ReportAlert: The Co-operative Sustainability Report 2010

Jul 13, 2011 11:15 AM ET

The Co-operative Sustainability Report 2010 – Video ReportAlert July 2011

Introduced by Paul Scott, Director  

The Co-operative have just published their Sustainability Report 2010 – it’s required annual reading for anyone interested in CSR in the UK, but might not yet be on the reading list for people in other countries. 

 For those who don’t know the Co-operative, a quick outline.  It’s a big UK business but not your normal corporate. It’s a co-operative with over six million members, which means it’s owned by consumers rather than investors, and it’s accountable to them.  It operates in the UK and has nearly 110,000 employees and 5,000 trading outlets. It’s a food retailer – that’s  the main business, but it’s also a bank, an insurance company, an investment company, an asset manager, it has the largest funeral business in the UK,  it’s a pharmacy chain and a travel business,  and it has several specialist businesses such as car dealerships. So it’s large and very diverse. 

The Co-operative has a long history of doing the right thing - from its origins in mutual self-help, its values and by working towards building a better society – long before our current  concept of corporate social responsibility;  in that respect you could say the business world is now beginning to catch up with The Co-operative. 

So, the Sustainability Report 2010. The Co-operative have produced many of these reports over the past ten years, I’ve read them all and I know I need to make an extra strong cup of coffee, or two, when a new one appears because these reports make the reader work – they’re long, this one has 125 pages, and the content isn’t pre-digested headlines and big pictures, it’s almost all real content. It is a lot to get through. It follows the GRI framework, application level A+, and it’s independently assured using the AA1000Assurance Standard, which is the gold standard in this field. 

It’s packed full of targets,  progess  against targets, data-sets and explanations about things that I’m sure wouldn’t even occur to most businesses. For example, The Co-operative includes Co-operative Farms, which is the UK’s largest farmer. So there’s a 4 page section on chemicals – fertilisers and pesticides, which links to a section on neo-nicotinoid research –neo-nicotinoids are  pesticides which may be partly responsible for plummeting bee populations, which links into a six page section on biodiversity, and so on. 

The report is divided into three sections, the pillars of sustainability – society, environment and value – but the cross links and background info demonstrate that this report is about joined-up thinking.  

What I find so refreshing about The Co-operative, and so unusual for a large business, is the fact that it doesn’t just respond to change, it’s an agent of change. There’s a section on Public Policy which shows how the company is taking a stand on issues it feels are important, such as campaigning to lower the voting age to 16, or the campaign against unconventional fuel sources  - tar sands and gas shales.  But it seems to take a public policy stance on everything – from climate change to packaging, or the companies it won’t finance.  

Companies  it won’t finance – that’s an interesting issue. The Co-operative screens provision of finance and investment against an Ethical Policy – it won’t do business where it sees a conflict with this Policy. Since the Ethical Policy was introduced in 1992, The Co-operative has turned down £1.2b of business – or USD1.9bn. 

To sum up, it’s difficult to think of anything The Co-operative haven’t thought of.  International development?  Diet and health, financial inclusion, animal welfare – all boxes ticked, explanations given, targets set, lots of footnotes. The business goes the extra mile each time, tells the bad news as well as the good. 

I think my feedback over the years has been that The Co-operative needs to make the report shorter and snappier, and to be fair this year there’s a 12-page summary report and also a short film, as well as an online report.  

But I think that if they did produce a 40 page report it wouldn’t just be a condensing of information, it would be a loss.  

So why don’t you take a look for yourself – if you think the report over-detailed, give them that feedback. But if you think it’s astonishing and valuable, as I do – in fact a benchmark for transparency - then that feedback would be valuable as well.   Just don’t expect to flick thru the report in five minutes and be sure to make an extra strong cup of coffee! 

Thank you for watching this Video ReportAlert.