Co-ops and the future of sustainability

On one level – with the agreement made at the Paris Climate Change meetings, and the establishment of the UN Sustainability Goals – progress was made in 2015....

On one level – with the agreement made at the Paris Climate Change meetings, and the establishment of the UN Sustainability Goals – progress was made in 2015.

At the same time, the Volkswagen scandal raised serious questions about the effectiveness of corporate sustainability efforts. Industrial society’s impacts became ever clearer with the hottest year on record and reports that around three million people die each year as a result of air pollution.

For co-ops, sustainability featured as a core topic in 2015. It was a central theme at Congress in Birmingham and also at the International Co-operative Alliance General Assembly in Turkey. So how has that intention been carried forward into 2016?

We asked a number of co-ops about what their sustainability priorities are for this year.

The Paris Climate Change meetings in November/December 2015 [photo: Arnaud Bouissou]
The Paris Climate Change meetings in November/December 2015 [photo: Arnaud Bouissou]
Refocusing and refreshing environmental effortsCalverts, the London-based worker-co-operative design agency, has an effective ISO14001 environmental management system (EMS) in place and is refreshing environmental objectives in 2016 to make sure it continues to deliver.For Midcounties Co-operative, reducing resource use and waste are dual priorities for 2016, while Delta-T Devices is focusing on one particular resource – energy – adding new insulation around the site.

Jonathan Atkinson from the Carbon Co-op suggests that one thing co-operatives should do right now is to get a professional energy audit done.

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The need for more radical action is becoming ever clearer and so is the need to challenge how we do business

This is really important for homes and co-op businesses. It may cost a little up front but if done by an expert, will provide a road map for improvements that will pay back in no time.

For Andy Cresswell of Midcounties, addressing natural resources the business is most reliant on, and developing a plan to reduce this dependence, is a must.

A shift change

The need for more radical action is becoming ever clearer and so is the need to challenge how we do business. Delta-T Devices is looking to explore a new model that would see them renting rather than selling products, a great way to incorporate longevity, resulting in less waste and more efficient usage.

Another area is in finance – for co-operatives looking to push for greater action around climate change, Ethical Consumer is planning a campaign on carbon divestment.

But changes don’t end in the workplace. The Carbon Co-op is continuing to develop its pioneering replicable model for a deep retrofit of domestic properties, and helping members to live in comfortable, healthy low energy homes.

Deepening social relations

The social side of sustainability is a strong aspect of co-operatives. In 2016, Midcounties plans to work co-operatively with communities where it has shops, recognising that many are under sustained pressure and would benefit from additional support.

One topic that has galvanised communities is renewable energy. However, changes in government policy has put many schemes under strain.

Our coverage of the COP21: United Nations Climate Change conference

For Ed Mayo, secretary general at Co-operatives UK, championing the development of community energy co-ops in the face of such adversity and changes is a top 2016 priority.

Individual co-ops can directly support the sector as the Phone Co-op has done by adding 13 new investments in renewable energy co-ops in 2015 alone, growing an already impressive list.

Honouring and applying the co-op values and principles in this way is a key part of embracing sustainability and this is reflected by Calverts’ objectives for 2016 of maximising decent work and to look for more opportunities to trade with others in the co-op sector.

Co-operating for sustainability

A pledge that arose from Congress 2015 was for co-ops to be fossil fuel-free by 2030. For Ed Mayo, helping Co-operatives UK members to connect and share knowledge to realise this audacious goal is critical. The Sustainability Network is one mechanism for taking this forward this year.

A sustainable co-operative future is also a focus for the 2016 International Day of Co-operatives (2 July), which closes Co-operatives Fortnight.

When it comes to sustainability each successive year becomes more ‘make or break’ than the last. Partly because the mounting evidence for problems we face, and partly because progress made the year before was less than hoped for. However, topics in this camp definitely moved up the agenda for co-ops in 2015 and with many existing and new co-ops inspiring change, perhaps we will see a step change throughout 2016.

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