Sustainable Business Case Study – The Co-Operative Group

Cooperative-logoThe popular and prestigious Green Business Awards were held earlier this month. Winner of the overall ‘Green business of the year’ award and ‘Climate’ award was the Co-operative Group, making it a great candidate to be featured as a SBT case study

The Co-operative group is the largest mutual business in UK, owned by more than 6 million consumers, as opposed to private shareholders. The Co-op’s businesses extend to various sectors, such as food retail, finance and banking, funeral services and many more. However, it is not this that makes the Co-operative Group unique. It is its view on business and the way it goes about conducting its business, which is best summed up by the Group itself:

‘Like any business, we want to be a commercial success. However, even more important to us is the way we do business, and the way that we use our profits. We believe that we should offer our customers both value and values. Which makes us a bit different’

The Co-operative Group is a model for businesses wishing to become greener and more sustainable. Here is what we can learn from their business values and principles.

The Co-operative Group’s values

The Co-operatives values are idiosyncratic and powerful communicators of their intent to be a sustainable business (note: these values may differ from the Co-ops corporate values but are clearly evident in the way that they do business)

  • Self-help: help people to help themselves
  • Self-responsibility: take responsibility for individual actions
  • Democracy: members, who are customers, have a say in the way Co-op runs its businesses
  • Equality: No matter how much money a member invests in their share account, they still have only one vote
  • Equity: making sure that business is carried out in a way that is fair and unbiased
  • Solidarity: the Co-op shares interests and common purposes with their members and other co-operatives
  • Openness: understanding that nobody’s perfect and therefore not hiding when they are not
  • Honesty: being honest about what they do and the way they do it
  • Social responsibility: encouraging people to take responsibility for their own community, and working together to improve it
  • Caring for others: Co-op regularly funds various charities and local community groups from the profit of their businesses

The Co-operative Group’s principles

It is clear that the Co-operative Group has a number of guiding business principles which help it live up to the values illustrated above. These include:

  • Voluntary and open membership
  • Democratic member control
  • Autonomy and independence: co-operatives are always independent, even when they enter into agreements with the Government and other organisations
  • Education, training and information: co-operatives educate and develop their members as well as their staff
  • Co-operation amongst co-operatives: Co-operatives work together with other co-operatives to strengthen the co-operative movement as a whole
  • Concern for community

Sustainable business achievements

The Co-operative has used its unique values and business principles to achieve significant advances in its sustainability and environmental performance. Achievements include:

  • 40% cut in absolute emissions since 2006
  • Carbon reduction target of 50% by 2020 (in absolute terms, therefore guaranteeing a reduction in its climate change impacts)
  • Target to generate a quarter of its electricity needs from its own renewable sources by 2017
  • Co-op’s new head office in Manchester achieved the BREEAM environmental performance assessment ‘outstanding’ award
  • Fitting doors on refrigeration units in 2000 stores by 2020 to cut energy use by 20%
  • In 2012 alone, Co-op invested £13m to improve energy efficiency. They have also committed to provide £1bn to finance UK renewable energy projects
  • The Co-op are committed to source soya from sustainable sources so as to avoid contributing to deforestation
  • The Co-op has also been known for its campaigning activities. An example is working alongside WWF to oppose energy firm plans to exploit tar sand in countries such as Canada

What can other company’s learn from the Co-operative?

The Co-operative group is a prime example of how businesses can become more sustainable, and how to communicate and embed clear values and business principles which create an organising intelligence for the business.

The Co-op is clear about their practices and success stories, which can be easily accessed through their website.

The most unique aspect of the company is that they give power to the people who they care most about, their customers. And in doing good by them they do good for themselves.

About the Author Charles El-Zeind

Charles El-Zeind is passionate about communicating environmental issues such as climate change and sustainability. Charles is currently involved in a grassroots community project with the Fiveways and Hollingdean Transition Network and writes regularly for the Sustainable Business Toolkit. He holds a bachelor degree from the University of Brighton in Environment and Media Studies.

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