Over the past few years, the Co-op Group has led campaigns to tackle some of the most pressing social issues, from modern slavery and loneliness to reducing crime and preserving community spaces.
Campaigns and public affairs director, Paul Gerrard, who is responsible for the Group’s relations and engagement with government, thinks the retailer has a role to play in British society. He joined the Group in 2016, after 20 years at the civil service, including stints at the Home Office and HMRC. He says he loved his time there – but working at a leading co-operative is better, because he can help influence policy and raise awareness of social concerns. “Values align between co-ops and what I believe,” he says. This is deeply ingrained: growing up in Adlington, Lancashire, meant he became aware of co-ops at an early age.
He has recently returned from a trip to Brussels, where he attended a roundtable on ethical supply chains organised by Euro Coop, the European community of consumer co-operatives. There he talked about the Group’s Bright Future programme, designed to support victims of modern slavery. Retailer Coop Italia also shared its quest for radical transparency in its supply chain.
“It was clear that co-operatives go much further, much faster than non co-op counterparts,” says Mr Gerrard.
In 2018 the Group supported the Assaults on Retail Workers Bill, which aimed to give certain offences a more serious, aggravated status when perpetrated against such workers in the course of their employment.
Like most private member’s bills, it was withdrawn after its first reading, but the Group continued to raise awareness about the issue and last year funded a report on impact and motivations of violence in the retail sector. Mr Gerrard says these efforts played an important role in the government issuing a call for evidence on violence and abuse toward shop staff.
Similarly, over the past five years, the Group has been an active campaigner against loneliness. In 2015, members voted for it to tackle loneliness with the support of the British Red Cross.
The same year, the Group published a research paper, which indicated that millions of people find it difficult to admit they felt lonely, even though loneliness can have a detrimental impact on a health and wellbeing.
“When we started campaigning against loneliness, it wasn’t a widely recognised issue,” says Mr Gerrard, adding that loneliness wasn’t spoken about, but rather perceived in simplistic terms which focused predominantly on older people.
“Now the government has published a strategy and appointed a minister,” he adds.
In 2019, a fund to tackle loneliness was set up by the government, the Big Lottery Fund and the Group’s charity the Co-op Foundation; so far, it has awarded £11.5m to 126 organisations across England. Benefits to communities have included new transport links to support those most at risk of isolation; innovative digital solutions that enable elderly people and young care leavers to connect with their peers; and one-to-one support for LGBTQ+ people suffering from loneliness.
Mr Gerrard believes that forming partnerships with organisations that can bring different assets to the table has been crucial to the Group’s approach to campaigning.
And, as someone who spent years in government hearing from charities, interest groups and businesses coming to lobby, he knows a collective voice can be compelling.
“The Co-op has a profile in the UK that means when we partner with others, we can speak with a voice that punches well above our weight,” he says.
Last October, for example, the Group launched a partnership with charities Mind, the Scottish Association for Mental Health (SAMH) and Inspire to help people develop the skills needed to effectively support their own and others’ mental health in their communities.
“They bring unbelievable expertise on mental health issues and connections,” says Mr Gerrard. “We bring the footprint and reach of 2,600 stores in the UK and 70,000 colleagues.”
On tackling modern slavery, the retailer has been working with every major charity that supports slavery survivors, and is offering the opportunity of a paid work placement and a job in its food business to those who have been victims of modern slavery.
“Initially it was just us and City Hearts,” he says. “Now Bright Future includes 49 organisations, businesses and charities working together to tackle modern slavery … Partnership is an asset that makes you more effective.”
Last June the Co-op and Locality launched their Endangered Spaces campaign to protect, support and improve 2,000 at-risk community spaces by 2022. Findings show that over 4,000 community and public spaces are being sold off each year for private use.
Going forward, the retailer will be publishing a series of research pieces on the impact of losing community spaces, exploring community ownership models as a means to retain community spaces.
In addition to these campaigns, the retailer will aim to achieve recyclability for packaging across all own-brand products.
With radical new legislation expected in areas such as agriculture and the environment, Mr Gerrard says the Co-op Group will continue to work with the civil service and the government to influence their decisions.