The sustainability journey part 1: setting the scene

Co-operatives have an advantage when it comes to sustainability because they are guided by values and principles. But this advantage needs to be translated into something tangible. Individual...

Co-operatives have an advantage when it comes to sustainability because they are guided by values and principles. But this advantage needs to be translated into something tangible. Individual co-ops still have to take action and explicitly address sustainability issues if they are to do better business. So what should your co-op do? This is the first of three articles exploring the answers to this question.

No co-op (or situation) is the same

The starting point for thinking about sustainability will be different for each enterprise, co-operative or otherwise. Factors such as stage of development, purpose, size, and governance arrangements are all important.

The start-up phase is the ideal time to think about sustainability as it allows it become part of the fabric right from the beginning. This is the time when questions are being raised about motivation, vision, goals, what is delivered, premises, finance, and people and roles, among other things.

Where does the natural world fit into this? What about social issues? For an established co-op, thinking about sustainability and what it means is likely to be harder, with ingrained culture and habits to shift. However, having clear values and principles on which to base discussion and action should help.

The language around sustainability can make deciding on action harder. For example, guidance on tackling environmental issues often appears most relevant and easy to apply to businesses providing or making goods rather than services.

However, services have impacts too. Even when the core business focuses on some aspect of sustainability, e.g. renewable energy co-ops, there will still be impacts to consider – although there are clear foundations to build on. Size matters as, when there are a small number of people (workers or members) involved, it is easier to have enterprise-wide discussions and develop approaches that involve everyone. This is more challenging for larger enterprises.

In a worker co-op, members are typically all engaged, playing an active role in all matters of the business. While this might make getting started harder, once agreed, acceptance and application of identified measures will typically be longer lasting.

For consumer co-ops, reaching members is usually quite a task as they are not involved in the day to day running of the business. How far could/should you go to engage members? Multi-stakeholder, voluntary, housing and other enterprises that operate in some way co-operatively will have their own challenges, too.

Every co-op can do sustainability

Despite the differences, it is possible to identify some questions which can help when thinking about sustainability and what it means for your co-op:

  • Are you honouring all the co-op principles and values? They all matter when it comes to sustainability.
  • Do you understand all the issues you face? This can include negative things like carbon emissions but it also links to how your co-op can make a positive contribution.
  • What do you want to achieve? When setting out on a journey it is generally wise to have a clear idea of where you are heading.
  • How are you going to achieve goals? Flexible plans and appropriate decision-making criteria are a must.
  • Who do you need to engage? Members, workers, suppliers and others can all have a role.
  • How do you measure progress? Measuring and monitoring helps keep everyone on board.
  • Do you need some form of accreditation? Standards and certificates can provide visible recognition and a framework but if not implemented well are worthless.

How should you report on progress? Telling others what you are doing can be valuable.


The sustainability journey part 2 will look in-depth at these issues …

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