Build back greener: Copac webinar urges co-ops to lead on climate

'The time for co-operation and concern for community is now!' says Ariel Guarco.

This year’s celebrations for the International Day of Co-operatives focused on climate action, with a webinar led by the Committee for the Promotion and Advancement of Cooperatives (Copac) looking at ways to revive the economy without compromising on environmental action.

The scale of the problem means international co-operation is needed between governments, the civil society and private sector – a point stressed at the webinar by Alejandro Verdier, Argentina’s ambassador to the UN, and Daniela Bas, director of the UN Division for Inclusive Social Development (UN DESA). “Let us use this International Day as a reminder of the key role of co-operatives in combating the climate emergency and in building a more sustainable future for all,” said Ms Bas.

Victor van Vuuren, director of enterprises at the International Labour Organization (ILO), warned against ignoring the environment when reviving the economy. “What we do not need is one part of an organisation focusing on performance, another on social responsibility and another on green recovery. These three areas need to be part of a holistic approach,” he said.

Covid-19 has brought hardship to casual workers and Mr van Vuuren said co-ops can help them formalise their employment. And a green recovery needs visionary leaders, a more integrated approach and specific actions to counter the effects of Covid-19 on people and the environment.

“The ILO is committed to its membership of Copac,” he added, “and to working closely with its partners. We look forward to a Covid-free and green future that takes cognisance of the informal sector and the gender agenda.”

In its strategic plan for 2020-2030, the International Co-operative Alliance (ICA) is focused on the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals – not least, SDG13 on climate change. Director general Bruno Roelants said the co-operative identity is a crucial factor. Co-ops are owned by their members, and rooted in their communities, and therefore more likely prioritise their concerns on issues such as climate, he argued. They also get more immediate feedback from stakeholders about how climate change affects them.

ICA president Ariel Guarco said he was proud that even during the pandemic “the co-operative movement is standing up to move the community forward” and said there are already co-ops actively involved in climate action. 

Examples highlighted at the webinar include Argentina’s Creando Consciencia, which processes 220 tonnes of waste a month. A worker co-op, it was set up in 2008 to help waste pickers formalise and has grown from six worker-owners to more than 50, all of whom benefit from access to healthcare services and have been able to build up their credit.

A documentary on the co-op by film makers Sara Vicari and Andrea Mancori was streamed during the webinar. “This co-op experience conveys an important message: it is possible to combine climate action with the development of a sustainable enterprise, decent work and the inclusion of marginalised people,” said Ms Vicari.

The webinar also heard from Tanzanian agri co-op Communal Shamba Coffee: its managing director Keremba Warrioba said its climate action started as an effort to reduce operational costs and improve farmer incomes. Changes include drying the coffee naturally, which cuts down on water use, and composting waste.

Other co-ops encourage members to make their own efforts, such as UK retailer Midcounties with its 1 Change campaign. This followed feedback from members keen to act on climate change but unsure of where to start. 

The co-op identity helped shape this collaborative project. Members were asked through in-store and online communications to make a single change to their behaviour; 1,000 pledges were made and the society collected data, which it shared with members to show the difference they had made. 

“The campaign was focused on the co-operative element – it was a collaborative approach,” said corporate social responsibility (CSR) manager
Mike Pickering. 

Midcounties’ other climate commitments include replacing single use plastic carrier bags with compostable bags, supporting community energy and recycling waste into 1,000 plastic bricks.

“Our co-op founders wanted us to do more than simply establishing an operating enterprise,” said Midcounties’ chief values officer Pete Westall. “They were concerned for social justice and the communities in which we all live. Perhaps now, 125 years from the formation of the ICA, it is time to consider a new principle, an eighth principle on taking action on climate change.”

Agriculture is one of the highest emitting sectors, leaving co-ops in the industry with a crucial role. Meena Pokhrel discussed the work of the Nepal Agricultural Co-operative Central Federation (NACCFL), which has partnered with the World Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) to promote organic farming – which produces fewer direct climate emissions – among its 750 member co-ops. 

Guilherme Brady, coordinator for the Civil Society Organizations Team at the FAO, warned that after years of global decline, hunger is on the rise again. He believes co-ops can be an engine of sustainable development and economic inclusion.

Wenyan Yang, chief of the Global Dialogue for Social Development Branch at the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs, said the Covid-19 crisis had created a rare opportunity to promote a greener recovery.

“We cannot wait,” she said. “This momentum for change in the patterns of production and consumption is a favourable development for the co-operative enterprise model.” 

Communication is important here, she added. With tech opening up new channels to spread the word, she urged co-ops improve their ability to
encourage action on climate change.

  • The webinar can be watched online here
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