The sustainability journey part 3 – Making and assessing progress

While part 2 looked at goals and strategy, the focus in part 3 is action, keeping track, accreditation and the need to involve others. Taking action Taking sustainability seriously...

While part 2 looked at goals and strategy, the focus in part 3 is action, keeping track, accreditation and the need to involve others.

Taking action

Taking sustainability seriously is an ongoing process of change rather than one or two actions, and demands perseverance and creativity. Having reviewed the issues, determined priorities, and established goals (see Part 2), action planning and implementation come next. Involving others (members and employees at a minimum) is crucial to making things happen. Everyone should feel included and be working towards the same end-point. This can manifest in how they work, how they talk about the business or through inspiring and practical ideas and solutions.

In non-hierarchical enterprises, such as workers co-operative Calverts, it is impossible to make progress without open discussion – but taking this approach can prove a challenge. Whether it is ensuring that everything doesn’t fall to a small committee of enthusiasts, or in looking to involve a wider membership, there is much to consider.

The Phone Co-op, for example, has established a sustainability Fund to engage customer members, where they can choose to forfeit dividends to support environmental projects. A next step could be to involve members in how this money is spent.

Talking to customers can present another source of ideas. As well as dealing with internal impacts, something else to consider is whether actions around products and services will help customers reduce their impacts. The Phone Co-op’s Fairphone partnership and Calverts’ use of Forest Stewardship Council (FSC)-approved paper are good examples. Making procurement decisions using a balance of financial and ethical criteria is another established way of making a difference. It might be about buying from other co-ops, working proactively with suppliers on topics your co-op holds dear or buying products and services that have a less negative impact, or a net positive one.

Resources will always be an issue and planned activities have to reflect this. Taking a longer-term view – particularly in relation to investment (in equipment, services etc) – is important, as financial and non-financial benefits can take time to materialise. For many enterprises, strategic business activity is planned on short or medium-term horizons, so building in sustainability needs a shift in business strategy. This makes it essential for top level decision makers to be involved in the effort – something that is seen at the Southern Co-operative where Gemma Lacey (director of sustainability) reports directly to the chief executive and sits on the leadership management board.

Measuring and reporting progress

Measuring progress towards goals identifies where more effort is needed and also highlights success, which in turn builds motivation and momentum. Quantitative indicators, such as the Southern Co-operative’s percentage reduction in energy consumption, should be used where possible as they are clear and unambiguous and can also be used to assess your position relative to others. However, not everything can be measured in such a straightforward way. Calverts, for example, recently improved its energy efficiency through lighting and created a better working environment – a qualitative benefit that demands narrative rather than numbers.

Guidance such as the co-op-specific Simply Performance or the more general Global Reporting Initiative can help with the selection of indicators – but don’t be afraid to create your own if they fit your purpose better.

With indicators in place, it is now possible to report on position and progress, a transparent and effective way to demonstrate co-operative difference. Cambridge based Delta-T Devices, which specialises in instruments for the environmental sciences, has just produced its first report that covers social and environmental issues. Integrating these topics into wider business and financial reporting goes further, giving greater importance to them. Both the Phone Co-op and the Southern Co-op report in this way.


Formal certificates and standards, such as those offered by International Organization for Standardization (ISO), Investors in People or FSC, are favoured by some, and demanded by others, as a mechanism for demonstrating sustainability effort. They certainly have their place but will not be the answer for all.

If your co-op is exploring using them, consider carefully what the purpose is and what you hope to achieve. Embracing the spirit of standards, as well as the letter, will lead to greater rewards, as Calverts found when they decided to go wholeheartedly for the ISO’s ISO14001 certificate, which covers environmental management systems. It was a challenge that brought significant benefits. The organisation also got FSC certification as it fitted with the service offered and sent out a visible signal that they are serious about making a difference.

So there is much to do on the sustainability journey and the next steps are not always clear – but with good planning, a bit of vision and an injection of enthusiasm, it is one worth making.


Read more:
The sustainability journey part 1: setting the scene
The sustainability journey part 2: getting things moving

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