Co-op: Boom in the gloom

With operations spanning insurance to retail and with over 100,000 employees, The Co-operative Group has become a world leader. All About Brands’ Chairman Allan Biggar explains how its CSR positioning has given it unrivalled competitive advantage.

The Co-op (or The Co-operative Group) is an iconic British brand with a 140 year history. With its humble beginnings serving as a co-operative among Rochdale-based retailers, it now stands as a striking success story, both commercially and socially.





Since its acquisition of the supermarket chain Somerfield, it has emerged as the UK’s fifth largest food retailer. At the same time, its financial services arm merged with Britannia building society, becoming the UK’s first ‘super-mutual’. And with those acquisitions, it’s now returning record revenues of over £13bn in 2009 and a healthy £400m+ profit.

It’s a particularly notable story in part because it is the world's largest consumer-owned business, with over 4.5 million members and 123,000 employees across all its businesses. The other notable aspect to this success story is its profound commitment to social values and the environment. The Co-op has become an outstanding example of a business which has put corporate social responsibility (CSR) at its core, and reaps significant benefits as a result.

The co-operative heritage of the business is an important driver in this. It was founded to create a multiplier effect for small retailers and to help build loyalty and cut costs. That history was leveraged by the Group in the 1980s when, the banking sector as a whole suffered a reputational crisis. The Co-operative Bank, the largest part of the Group, sought to address the poor standing of the industry as a whole by reinvigorating its brand with a modern interpretation of co-operative values. This led to an Ethical Policy, followed by an Ecological Policy and from that flowed the sustainable development framework which now underpins the business and its decision-making processes.

In other words, from the banking crisis of the late 1980s, tarnished by a number of scandals emerged the values of today’s Co-op while it seems from the financial crisis of the 2000s we now see a strong performing business whose leadership in sustainable development is now serving as a benchmark for late comers across all sectors.

So what lessons can be learnt from the Co-operative story?

Building a reputation as a responsible business sets you apart. It has differentiated the Co-operative helping it to appeal to a thoughtful, and often more loyal, customer base. In addition, companies often favour suppliers who demonstrate responsible policies, as this can have a positive impact on how they are perceived by their peers.

Increasingly some customers don't just prefer to deal with responsible companies, but insist on it. ISO accreditation, for example, provides a kitemark which demonstrates due process and standards and is required by companies looking for reliable suppliers. And ISO’s 14001 environmental certification is fast becoming a need to do for tender processes for both manufacturing and service industries alike.

The Co-operative Group places a strong emphasis on its corporate social responsibility and publishes detailed 'warts and all' reports on its performance on a wide range of criteria - from animal welfare to salt levels in its pizzas. While the reports don’t always detail success, they do show there’s a commitment to do the right thing and to behave honourably. And, like many companies today, they do it because they know customers want to know what their supplier is up to.

Perhaps the most compelling reason is one of cost. Reducing resource use, waste and emissions doesn't just help the environment - it saves money too. In their 2009 report, the Co-operative crows at its success in reducing packaging by 15 per cent, thereby reducing cost and benefitting its membership.

The Co-operative Group is not dissimilar to Bourneville, Cadbury’s and other great British brands which historically had a societal commitment. But unlike many, the Co-op is still around today, its corporate social responsibility remains at the heart of its operations and, as a result, it’s now a business to be reckoned with.

For more information and advice for SMEs, visit www.freshbusinessthinking.com

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Voices
Lucerne’s Hotel Château Gütsch, one of the lots in our Homeless Veterans appeal charity auction
charity appeal
Arts and Entertainment
Tony Hughes (James Nesbitt) after his son Olly disappeared on a family holiday in France
tv
News
people

Jo from Northern Ireland was less than impressed by Russell Brand's attempt to stage a publicity stunt

Sport
Scunthorpe goalkeeper Sam Slocombe (left) is congratulated by winning penalty taker Miguel Llera (right)
football
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
The Apprentice candidates Roisin Hogan, Solomon Akhtar, Mark Wright, Bianca Miller, Daniel Lassman
tvReview: But which contestants got the boot?
Life and Style
A woman walks by a pandal art installation entitled 'Mars Mission' with the figure of an astronaut during the Durga Puja festival in Calcutta, India
techHow we’ll investigate the existence of, and maybe move in with, our alien neighbours
Arts and Entertainment
Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels ride again in Dumb and Dumber To
filmReview: Dumb And Dumber To was a really stupid idea
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Ian McKellen tempts the Cookie Monster
tvSir Ian McKellen joins the Cookie Monster for a lesson on temptation
News
i100
Travel
Tourists bask in the sun beneath the skyscrapers of Dubai
travelBritish embassy uses social media campaign to issue travel advice for festive holiday-makers in UAE
News
ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment
Jennifer Saunders stars as Miss Windsor, Dennis's hysterical French teacher
filmJennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress
Life and Style
tech
Sport
Nabil Bentaleb (centre) celebrates putting Tottenham ahead
footballTottenham 4 Newcastle 0: Spurs fans dreaming of Wembley final after dominant win
Voices
Jimmy Mubenga died after being restrained on an aircraft by G4S escorts
voicesJonathan Cox: Tragedy of Jimmy Mubenga highlights lack of dignity shown to migrants
Life and Style
Sebastian Siemiatkowski is the 33-year-old co-founder and CEO of Klarna, which provides a simple way for people to buy things online
tech
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Money & Business

Ashdown Group: Java Developer - Hertfordshire - £47,000 + bonus + benefits

£40000 - £470000 per annum + bonus: Ashdown Group: Java Developer / J2EE Devel...

Ashdown Group: Direct Marketing Manager - B2C, Financial Services - Slough

£45000 - £55000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: An exciting opportunity h...

Carlton Senior Appointments: Sr Wealth Manager - San Francisco - Inv AdvisoryFirm

$125 - $175 per annum: Carlton Senior Appointments: Senior Wealth Manager – In...

Carlton Senior Appointments: Private Banking Manager - Intl Bank - Los Angeles

$200 - $350 per annum: Carlton Senior Appointments: Managing Producer – Office...

Day In a Page

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas
La Famille Bélier is being touted as this year's Amelie - so why are many in the deaf community outraged by it?

Deaf community outraged by La Famille Bélier

The new film tells the story of a deaf-mute farming family and is being touted as this year's Amelie
10 best high-end laptops

10 best high-end laptops

From lightweight and zippy devices to gaming beasts, we test the latest in top-spec portable computers
Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

The batsman has grown disillusioned after England’s Ashes debacle and allegations linking him to the Pietersen affair
Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

The Williams driver has had plenty of doubters, but hopes she will be judged by her ability in the cockpit
Adam Gemili interview: 'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

After a year touched by tragedy, Adam Gemili wants to become the sixth Briton to run a sub-10sec 100m
Calls for a military mental health 'quality mark'

Homeless Veterans campaign

Expert calls for military mental health 'quality mark'
Racton Man: Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman

Meet Racton Man

Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman
Garden Bridge: St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters

Garden Bridge

St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters
Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament: An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel

Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament

An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel
Joint Enterprise: The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice

Joint Enterprise

The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice
Freud and Eros: Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum: Objects of Desire

Freud and Eros

Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum