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Co-op takes tougher line on ethical banking

THE CO-OPERATIVE Bank is setting new standards in social responsibility and ecological sustainability in a move that will challenge companies that have sought to bolster their reputation by stressing their commitment to the wider community.

Organisations such as Body Shop, Traidcraft, the ethical trading company and, in the US, Ben & Jerry's Ice Cream, have led the way with social audits, while BT, ICI and BP have begun to produce environmental reports and GrandMet, now part of Diageo, has benchmarked its community involvement. But the bank says its report, to be issued alongside its annual results next week, goes further in demonstrating how success in delivering value is dependent on the relationships between an organisation and its staff, customers, suppliers and other partners.

This partnership approach, launched last year, is seen as a natural progression from such moves as the development of an ethical policy and an ecological mission statement introduced earlier this decade.

Pointing out the impossibility of satisfying all of these groups at once, the bank's managers have devised an approach based on having the bank at the centre of seven partners - shareholders (in this case just one, the Co-operative Wholesale Society), customers, staff and their families, suppliers, local communities, national and international society, and past and future generations of "co-operators".

The challenge, said Simon Williams, head of corporate affairs, was to achieve a balance between all these groups. It was important not to see looking at the wider issues as an alternative to focusing on the financial aspects of running a business, he added. "It's a way of making a profit. It's not philanthropy or do-goodism - it's hard business."

Nevertheless, the bank claims the environmental aspects of the report have been assessed far more rigorously than those of many other companies because they have been subjected to the standards of a Swedish body called The Natural Step.

The bank claims it is taking the partnership issues - ranging from treatment of staff to encouraging its suppliers to adopt the highest environment standards - so seriously that it is locked in a dispute with PVC manufacturers over its campaign to reduce the use of the material in credit and other cards. Last May, it launched a card made from plant-based rather than oil-derived plastic.

And, besides winning approving comments from the verifiers - Business in the Community, the Centre for Tomorrow's Company and social audit consultants ethics etc - the report has been praised by Jonathon Porritt of Forum for the Future, which campaigns for sustainable development.