Many co-operatives are leading the way when it comes to sustainable practices. Here, the News looks at some examples of ethical policies put into practice by organisations in the movement
The Phone Co-op
The Phone Co-op’s ethical policy is based on the co-operative values of self-help, self-responsibility, democracy, equality and solidarity.
The co-operative aims for a policy of clean pricing with no hidden charges; it does not impose sales targets on agents or affinity partners, and opposes high-pressure sales techniques.
Its ethical policy also sees the Phone Co-op working with different organisations to help them raise funds, including social economy organisations, charities and ethical campaigning bodies.
And when these organisations recruit members to the Phone Co-op by endorsing its services to their supporters, members and customers, they receive a percentage of their call spend.
While the board of directors is accountable for the Phone Co-op’s ethical policy, the chief executive is responsible for the administration and delivery of this policy.
The co-op’s purchasing policy favours suppliers whose material, ethical and environmental practices meets its own standards. At the same time, the co-operative seeks to avoid trading with any supplier or consumer which it discovers to be engaged in unlawful practices, violating basic employee rights or discriminating against individuals or groups on the grounds of race, gender, age, nationality, sexual orientation, disability or belief.
Manchester-based Unicorn Grocery summarises its ethical and social guidelines in a statement of purpose.
These principles include providing secure employment for the employee members who own and run the business. Unicorn trades organic foods of non-animal origin, which have undergone minimal processing and have excellent nutritional value. It also provides food educational materials for customers.
Special preference is given to products which follow the Fairtrade ethos, and 4% of wage costs goes to a fund supporting projects which address the trade imbalance. Under its environmental commitment, the co-op uses low-impact packaging and lobbies for reusable packaging.
With co-operation among co-operatives one of the guiding principles of the movement, Unicorn operates a fund which supports projects that share its vision of community and society; 1% of its wage costs are contributed to this fund. To express its support for various causes, the co-operative occasionally boycotts products
Scottish Shellfish Marketing Group
Founded in 1992, the Scottish Shellfish Marketing Group (SSMG) is a co-operative of mussel and oyster farmers on the west coast of Scotland and the Shetlands.
The group has an ethical policy featuring a number of core values which they are keen to promote to customers and staff, arguing that such values benefit everyone, and are integral to any successful business.
The policy covers such areas as employee rights and equal opportunities. On the customer side of the business, SSMG is a member of Sedex (Supplier Ethical Data Exchange), a web-based system where suppliers can share ethical trading information with customers.
SSMG is also committed to environmental protection and sustainability. In recent years, it has been looking at ways of reducing its carbon footprint. Mussel growing has a carbon footprint that is around 19 times less than that of beef production; SSMG’s production is also independently certified to the flagship Marine Stewardship Council and Friend of the Sea standards for its environmentally responsible manner of cultivation.
Gillian Dickie, technical manager (aquaculture & procurement) for SSMG, says the group’s over-riding aim is to have a business that is “ethical, honest and sustainable”.
“By adopting such values we can work as a successful team that will drive the company forward with our employees being at the very heart of the process,” she adds.
A members’ co-operative in Hulme, Manchester, is offering affordable office space to freelancers, ethical businesses and social enterprises.
OpenSpace adopted its ethical policy in January 2012, with the aim of operating in a way that benefits the local community, minimises impact on the environment and avoids discrimination or exploitation of others. The co-operative welcomes tenants and members who support such values as democratic member control and co-operation.
OpenSpace, which believes surplus should be shared and, where possible, re-invested within the community, is an autonomous organisation, independent of political parties or other organisations. It aims to minimise environmental impact by maximising re-use, reducing resource use and recycling materials.
In line with its ethical policy, OpenSpace retains the right to reject tenancy applications from applicants operating in sectors members regard as unethical, exploitative or incompatible with its values. It is eager to collaborate with co-ops, social enterprises and community organisations which share its values.
Suma Wholefoods’ ethical policy focuses on three main issues: employment and structure; products; and working practices.
Suma is a workers’ co-operative where all employees, who own and run the enterprise, receive the same net hourly rate of pay. Members decide the co-op’s policy and direction and the business is operated by a group of co-ordinators within a flat management structure. Suma also strives to be an equal opportunities employer.
When purchasing goods, the co-operative abides by a set of principles including promoting green and healthy eating. It prefers sourcing from organic, Fairtrade and co-operative producers as well as independent manufacturers, and is trying to source as locally as possible to limit food miles. The products are sourced with minimal environment impact in terms of production, transportation and packaging.
The co-operative also aims to avoid buying from countries or companies with proven poor human rights records.
Limiting the environmental impact of the business is also important – where possible, Suma adopts green innovations and recycles, re-uses and repairs assets. It also tries to minimise food waste by stock rotation, careful storage and handling.
What makes a good ethical policy?
Paul Monaghan, director of management consultancy Up The Ethics, said cutting-edge ethical strategies include commitments to:
• Responsible tax planning: tax avoidance is the number one concern of the UK public when it comes to business conduct, with initiatives such as the Fair Tax Mark growing rapidly.
• Sound sourcing: consumers expect trusted brands to screen out the nasty things in life as a matter of course – be that child labour or unsustainable timber.
• Lobbying for good: when governments are discussing the big issues of sustainable development such as climate change and trade justice, people want to see business on the side of the angels – lobbying for what’s right, not what’s convenient.
Ben Reid, chief executive of the Midcounties Co-operative, stresses the importance of:
• Credibility: it is fatal to make claims that the organisation can’t live with. The policy must not be driven by the marketeers – an ethical policy must be bought into by everyone, in particular those at the front end of the business.
• Engagement with the members: this is their business and, therefore, any policy should reflect their aspirations.
• Persistence: maintaining a focus on living the values throughout the business. This is hard work; in some parts of the business there can be high labour turnover and therefore is a need for mechanisms to bring new colleagues up to speed.