New economy or business as usual? Co-ops and sustainability after Covid-19

'We have the unique opportunity to clear out what wasn’t working for us. It would be a shame to waste that'

Covid-19 is a reminder of the threat of disease, environmental damage and disrupted supply chains. But it has also brought huge financial pressure,
threatening a return to ‘business as usual’. Can co-ops push for something
better? We speak to Simon Constantine, a buyer for ethical cosmetics business Lush, who travels the world setting up co-ops with local people, and championing Fairtrade and permaculture.

Is there a worry that the world will go back to business as usual after the pandemic?

There is a worry the world is just starting back where it left off. However, some things are just fundamentally different already. Businesses are entering the unknown and despite best efforts to stem a recession there is no way out of a serious decline for most industries, many of whom are fixed on the bottom line for sheer survival.

At the same time there is experience of what a low-carbon, clean economy could feel like: emissions dropping dramatically over lockdown, many people turning to the outdoors for safe spaces to spend their time; and local produce and gardening suddenly becoming vitally important. Ideas and ideals that may have felt crazy a few months ago suddenly make perfect sense. I think there is real appetite and need for greater sovereignty over food, a natural focus on health and a reassessment of our quality of life. We have the unique opportunity to clear out what wasn’t working for us. It would be a shame to waste that.

What can members do to ensure their co-ops keep a focus on sustainability?

I think any organisation’s focus should embrace the natural world; if you want to dive deep you should probably ask that as a defining question of yourself: “How are you contributing to our planet and community?”

If you find that you are reducing the quality of the environment or society in some way then it’s probably time to stop. That’s easier said than done. My advice would be to first ensure you are educated to a reasonable level on the basic issues. The other is to go with your gut: you probably already have a good instinct for the activities or areas of your organisation that may be an issue; you just might be ignoring it. My experience has been, jump on the ecological scales so to speak and weigh yourself and your actions. Then you can assess what you can afford to do to change now and make a start and form pragmatic plans for the longer term after that.

Simon Constantine

Environmentalists have raised question marks over industries like meat and dairy where co-ops are active. Is the co-op movement sustainable enough?

I have spent many years working alongside animal rights activists, environmentalists and vegans and honestly, there are no straight answers. If you have a deep ethical issue with the use or servitude of animals by humans then you are not going to be content with an eco-friendly, free-range beef option no matter the welfare.

But there are models of regenerative animal agriculture that are becoming well known that show healthy animals in healthy ecosystems can possibly sequester carbon and boost bio-diversity. I think, as this crisis highlights, opaque supply chains and the move to industrial intensive animal rearing isn’t the future and we should find ways of converting industries away from this. 

This may involve a reduction in production but an increase in price – premium products that are richer and better for us, just less of the time. The appetites of people to cut out the middle man and go straight to producers may also allow for profit margins and people to connect. Direct sales may work better for you and your community; or plant-based foods which are increasing in popularity. If you are creative and pragmatic you could find yourself abandoning conventional agriculture for a more satisfying and profitable world, like the Knepp estate in the UK for example?

Is it useful for people to set up grassroots food / growing co-ops to try to drive better practice from the bottom up?

Of course, there are so many opportunities to be a part of this movement. Some furloughed staff may have volunteered on farms and picked fruit: a great way to connect to the type of work needed. I have been focused on restoring a three-acre walled garden in Dorset (careyssecretgarden.co.uk) to provide a space that grows organic food for the community.

It’s deeply inspired by the work I have seen in many permaculture groups both in the UK and internationally where you can get a rapid introduction and education in many aspects of growing food and community. 

I have seen co-operatives around the world operating in the most difficult of conditions who have driven real change from the bottom up – in Northern Ghana or Kenya, for example, where women’s co-operatives work in really tough regions and have had dramatic positive impact on their communities and ecosystems to provide food and income. So although things are tough at the moment I think there is plenty of opportunity to create something very special right now.

UK co-op retailers do a lot of work on food provenance: where should this go next?

I think there’s a strange mixture of needs at the moment. A renewed sense of nostalgia and crisis of identity in the UK, mixed with a real concern over what the future means. People want to feel connected to where they live, feel safe and be healthy. The revolution may come in linking our farm-to-fork model with boosts to our health and the environment. How does the local produce not only support the farmer but the ecosystem too?

And can it weave all this together to create a form of society that is rooted in some of the warmth of the past but has very modern aspects to calculate carbon sequestration or biodiversity impacts whilst earning a living wage?

Couple this with the re-wilding movement and we may see emerging wild spaces, accessible to the public, that engage and connect us both to the natural world and the bounty it provides.  

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