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Inside Business: More power to the ethical economy

THE CO-OPERATIVE BANK has long been regarded as outside the mainstream when it comes to deciding to whom it will lend and how it will conduct its business. Now it has updated its ethical policy in a move that it believes will keep the bank at the forefront of the issue until well into the next century.

Simon Williams, the bank's head of corporate affairs, says the review, announced at the turn of the year, was an essential part of ensuring that the Co-op's policy "echoes develop- ments in society at large".

He adds: "We are committed to regularly consulting our customers on the details of our ethical stance. After all, it is their money in the bank. New ethical concerns arise from time to time, and if they involve a question of finance or banking, they will be put before our customers. We then adopt a stance on these issues if our account holders mandate us to do so."

The biggest change to the policy involves extending the bank's ecological commitments to business activities considered unsustainable. As a result, the bank will not invest in companies whose core activity relies on the extraction or production of fossil fuels, the manufacture of unnatural chemicals or the "unsustainable harvest of natural resources". Revisions have also been made to the stance on the arms trade, human rights and trade and social involvement.

In particular, the bank is seeking to use its influence in the development of the "social economy" through assisting co-ops, credit unions and charities. Already 60 per cent of credit unions bank with the Co-op.

Other organisations are also promoting the importance of social and ethical accounting. In the autumn the New Economics Foundation published the "quality scoring framework", with the aim of allowing the comparison and evaluation of different approaches to social accountability. And this week the Institute of Social and Ethical Accountability hosts a conference on "the practice of social reporting for business".

The event, to be held at the Commonwealth Conference Centre in London on 19 January, will include presentations from Paul Monaghan, partnership development manager at the Co-op, Chris Tuppen, social and environmental measurement manager at BT, and John Elkington, chairman of the SustainAbility consultancy.

The organisers say: "Business and corporate success can no longer be defined solely in terms of earnings, growth and the balance sheet as social and ethical responsibility has become both an individual necessity and an organisational requirement."

The Co-op is confident that it is in a good position to encourage those who do not see how matters are developing. "Every company needs a bank account and many need lines of finance. Therefore, a bank is in a strong position to decide whether to fund a business activity or not," says Mr Williams.