The Co-Op is the UK’s 5th biggest food retailer with more than 2,500 local, convenience to medium-sized stores and is part of the larger Cooperative Group Limited which consists of food retail and wholesale, e-pharmacy, banking, insurance and legal services, and funeral care. It was developed as a ‘cooperative’ in 1844, meaning that it is owned by individual members, as opposed to investors. Instead the Co-Op is ran by its member and its democratically elected Member council which upholds the values of the International Cooperative Alliance; self-help, self-responsibility, democracy, equality, equity, solidarity.
In reality, it really does appear that the Co-Op is taking great lengths to ensure that its food is ‘ethical, sustainable and exceptional quality.’ The Co-Op has supported Fair-trade for 25 years now, and appears to fund social and/or environmental initiatives in all the regions from which it sources Fairtrade products. It also sources a lot of its products from local UK producers (100% meat, dairy, eggs, salmon), for whom they similarly fund a lot of social initiatives. Indeed, the Co-Op is recognised as a leader for their social goals and community-led programmes. On the sustainable front, the Co-Op has a very comprehensive climate plan and has set some very ambitious sustainable goals, for which it appears that it is already making good progress on. For example, the Co-Op is already carbon neutral across all its internal operations!
Honestly, reading the Co-Op website took me about 3 hours before I had had enough - there is that much information to get through! It was so refreshing to be absolutely inundated with information about all the amazing things that this pioneering supermarket is achieving. I truly believe that this reflects genuine commitment to high ethical, social and environmental standards. But please, be the judge of that for yourself!
On a personal level, coming from rural Scotland, the Co-Op is a bastion of our communities and they tend to dominate in similarly small or isolated locations. This is because it is central to the cooperative values that a store would never be too large or intrusive such that it should take away business from local retailers or drag shoppers out of the town centre to a superstore.
Before this review really gets going, I do apologise to the non-UK readers who probably have no clue of this supermarket. All you need to know is the Co-Op is far superior to the likes of Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Morrisons, and Asda. So if you do every make it over to this side of the pond - get yourself to a Co-Op!
Now on the sustainable front, the Co-Op was the first UK supermarket to introduce multiple different pro-environmental policies. For example, they were the first to introduce degradable plastic bags and ban 20 common pesticides from their fresh produce. They were also the first to outlaw animal testing from the household products that they sold and they were the first to stop selling hazardous chemicals. Furthermore, they were the pioneers in making their home-brand products fair-trade including their coffee (since 2003), tea, bananas, sugar (since 2008) and chocolate (since 2000).
They are also committed to responsible sourcing to ensure that the ingredients we use in our products are sourced as sustainably as possible, protecting people and the planet. The fish and seafood is sourced from accredited sources from sustainable fisheries. The beef is 100% UK reared, as is the dairy, from Red Tractor accredited farms, which does admittedly have strict animal welfare and environmental standards. The same is true for the lamb, pork, chicken, and turkey. However, sadly, Red Tractor-assured farms have been routinely exposed to be committing horrific animal abuse. For example, when you get into the nitty-gritty of their so-called rigorous standards, it turns out that 17-19 chickens per square meter of floor space is apparently sufficient to meet their welfare and sustainability standards. However, it is a positive that there is at least this accreditation and that all meat and dairy is sourced from the UK. This does work to lower carbon emissions from transport and feeds into local UK communities. However, it does come at a cost to other environmental and ethical standards.
When it comes to other ingredients like Palm Oil, everything is source sustainably as part of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO). The Co-Op has also been ranked as the second highest UK retailer on the 2020 WWF Palm Oil Scorecard with 18/22 points achieved. The group also works with Chester Zoo to fund a conservation and regeneration project in Borneo in former palm oil plantations, which is well on its way to plant 50,000 trees by 2025. While this is not enough to counteract the deforestation caused by the palm oil industry, it is a positive step.
The sustainable and responsible sourcing goal of the Co-Op also extends to wood, paper, peat, nuts, soy, fruit, vegetables, flowers, wheat and grains. While I am not going to go into the finer details of these products - as it would essentially be copy and pasting the entire Co-Op website - it does appear that the Co-Op is very aware of its sustainable and ethical responsibilities and is taking great lengths to source ingredients in a way that is both socially and environmentally positive.
Overall, the Co-Op has the goal of achieving net zero carbon emissions across the entire operation chain by 2040. The Co-Ops own operations will be carbon neutral from 2021 and all the own-brand products will be from 2025. It is the first UK supermarket to pledge to sell fully carbon neutral own-brand food and drink by 2025. And let me be the first to tell you that I believe them! This will partially be achieved through offsets and low carbon investments. All this and more is encapsulated in the Ten-Point Climate Plan.
Also, good news for all my plant-based comrades (and everyone else); the Co-Op has pledged to cut the price of its plant-based GRO range so that it reaches price parity with its meat and dairy counterparts so that the products are more affordable for everyone.
Overall, I have given the Co-Op a 1.5 rating for this section as we do have consider all of this positive information in the context of the fact that it is still sourcing a lot of questionable meat and dairy, albeit that from the UK. It also of course is a wasteful enterprise and one which is contributing to the extremely environmentally degrading sectors of animal agriculture, transport and consumerism. However, as far as supermarkets go, I think that we need to give credit where it is due!
In terms of packaging etc., as aforementioned, the Co-Op was the first UK supermarket to introduce certified degradable plastic bags. These are designed to have a second use as a food caddy liner. Across the Co-Op supply chain, all plastic carrier bags are being replaced by compostable ones. While the plastic bags are being phased out, all 5p charges are being donated to local causes of Members’ choices. The Co-Op has also removed its ‘Bags for Life’ (large plastic bags which you can buy for 10p) which is estimated to reduce single-use plastic waste by 870 tonnes per year.
Also, the milk bottle tops are a shade lighter, making it easier for recycle machines to sort them. Furthermore, the cooked meat packaging is made with single material, making it easier to recycle and saving 163 tonnes of plastic from landfill. The Co-Op’s own brand of still, sparkling, flavoured water, carbonated drinks and mixers are made out of 100% recycled material which is also 100% recyclable, thus saving 1,400 tonnes of plastic. In 2017, it introduced new cardboard pizza discs preventing 200 tonnes of polystyrene boards going to landfill per year. Also, the Co-Op has removed 331 tonnes of plastic from fruit and veg lines in the last 2 years. The Co-Op stores also act as a recycling depot for soft plastics, which are those lightweight plastics which can’t be recycled at home including crisp packets, pasta bags, biscuit wrappers, yogurt pot film lids and fruit punnets. In 2021, the Co-Op also achieved the feat of making all its own brand food packaging recyclable.
Furthering the point about water bottles, the Co-Op donates 3p per litre to water projects across the globe for every Co-op branded still, sparkling and flavoured water sold, while also donating 1p for the purchase of the same liquids which are not Co-Op own brand. So far, Co-Op water has raised £10 million for clean water projects, provided water access for 3 humanitarian crises in 2018, built rainwater harvesters, and provided clean toilets for over 8,000 children. Also, through ties to Water Unite, Co-Op is able to donate over £2 million per year to clean water projects in the fight against poverty.
So again, I am giving the Co-Op a rating of 1.5 for this section. As an enterprise, it still uses and will waste a lot of packaging. Also, while it is great that all its own-brand packaging is recyclable, it relies on the individual consumer recycling this. Also, the brand could work towards making ALL packaging recyclable. However, of course this would be extremely difficult, as it would involve either all the manufacturers of the products sold at the Co-Op to get on board or for the Co-Op to remove all the other products from its shelves.
The Co-op Group has over 70,000 employees working across the UK. It is ran by its 100-strong Members’ Council, Council Senate and President, and Member Nominated Directors. The role of this democratic system is to uphold the Co-ops values and principles, and help it progress towards its goals. Such values are those upheld by the International Cooperative Alliance and are as follows; self-help, self-responsibility, democracy, equality, equity, solidarity.
The Co-Op is committed to supporting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and protecting the rights of workers across the entire supply chain. This is promoted through its ‘Sound Sourcing Code of Conduct’ and Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI) Base Code. The Co-Op is also in partnership with 6 internationally recognised bodies which work for the promotion of ethical and responsible workplaces. To be part of these organisations, the Co-Op must be legitimately accredited.
The Co-Op is also committed to diversity and inclusion, at both the entry, leadership, and management level. Again, I will not go into detail (because there is a lot of it), but the Co-Op is committed to a number of schemes, goals, and partnerships which ensure it must uphold the highest standards for diversity and inclusion in its employee population. Please read its Diversity and Inclusion 2020 report for further information. The Co-Op Foundation charity has also donated more than £6.5 million in grants to community projects and campaigns in the UK which work to combat stigma.
The Co-Op runs the Co-Op Local Community Fund which has raised £100 million to support local communities in the UK between 2016 and 2021. The causes that this fund supports ranges from supporting the ups killing of vulnerable young people, to mental health support for frontline workers, to social care initiatives. This fund is contributed to by Co-Op Members.
The Co-Op also has an active relationship with Fairtrade. Through the Co-Op water campaign, it has supported water, hygiene and sanitation programmes in Fairtrade cocoa, sugar, tea and flower growing communities. The sale of the fair-trade Co-Op cocoa brings £450,000 each year to farmers across West and Central Africa. Through the fair-trade cocoa, the Co-Op also support the funding of the Fairtrade Africa’s Women’s Leadership School which trains local women in business skills. The Co-Op sugar supports the farmers in Belize to improve their social, economic, and environmental conditions. The fair-trade Co-Op coffee supports coffee producers in Colombia by funding the building of a new community education programme in 2015. It also is supporting the Fair-trade Africa’s East Africa Youth Programme. Much of the same is true for the Fairtrade Co-Op bananas and tea and wine.
I have given the Co-Op a rating of 2.5 for this section as I really do feel as if it is leading the way when it comes to workers’ rights, community funding, anti-slavery and inclusion.