‘Co-ops must work with other social movements on climate change’

We speak to Sam Cossar-Gilbert, programme coordinator at Friends of the Earth International

Founded in 1971 by four organisations from France, Sweden, England and the USA, Friends of the Earth International (FOEI) now operates in 77 countries around the world, boasting over 5,000 member groups.

One of its most recent campaigns culminated with taking oil giant Shell to court to ask that it align its policies with the Paris climate accords. The landmark case led to a ruling that Shell must reduce its emissions by 45% by 2030 compared to 2019 levels.

The environmental justice organisation says its main focus is to turn people’s concerns about the environment into transformational change. Sometimes this is achieved through co-operative models, with many FOEI groups involved in running co-ops or supporting them, particularly in the food sector. As part of this, Friends of the Earth Melbourne has been running a successful, food co-op, café and zero waste supermarket for over 30 years.

Sam Cossar-Gilbert is programme coordinator of FOEI’s Economic Justice – Resisting Neoliberalism programme, and is also involved in setting up a local worker co-op. One of Friends of the Earth Australia’s affiliates is Earthworker Cooperative, which brings together an ethical green cleaning services co-op (Redgum Cleaning Cooperative) and a solar hot water products co-op (Earthworker Energy Manufacturing Cooperative), which makes solar hot water pumps or heat pumps in coal impacted areas).

“Co-ops are democratic purpose-based models of business and organisation, and that makes them fundamentally different to the for-profit corporations,” explains Mr Cossar-Gilbert. He says co-ops exploring best practices must not only aim to minimise the environmental impact but also seek to have a positive regenerative effect on the planet and people.

“We are seeing community and co-operatively owned renewable energy growing rapidly around the world,” he says. “Co-ops have a huge role to play in the transition to renewable energy.”  

But he adds that when setting environmental goals, co-ops should be doing more than just minimising their impact. “Co-ops should seek to have positive and regenerative environmental and social outcomes in terms of their operations – but also their practices and procurement. Before setting goals, the initial first step is to always do an environmental and social audit – and then set strong, clear goals, such as 100% renewable energy, zero-carbon, or substantive reductions in waste.”

He explains that many businesses achieve their targets via carbon offsetting, a tactic FOEI opposes, arguing that it is much better to reduce carbon emissions at the source. His advice to co-ops is to “be careful of the false solutions offered by the corporate sector” and “try and have legitimate targets that show that you’re clearly making a difference and being transformative”.

“Being clearly linked to your values, and working with other co-operatives in building the co-operative movement and working with civil society as an active partner is much more important,” he adds.

And while he thinks there is a lot of potential for the co-operative movement in renewable energy, he warns that some co-ops are still quite constrained by operating in the market.

“Some large co-operatives can get caught up in market share and be more like big businesses. Large co-op players really need to make a choice about whether they’re going to reconnect with the co-operative movement and their DNA and build sustainably – or just become like other businesses. That’s a challenge for all co-ops, to be constantly reassessing their vision and mission and challenging themselves to be acting in line with their values.”

Sam Cossar-Gilbert

In 2018 Friends of the Earth published a report in which it identified co-ops as one of the five economic justice solutions to reshape the global economy. Mr Cossar-Gilbert believes that “sustainability is a key concern for all people at the moment and a really great way to reinvigorate the co-op movement,” and as such, working with the environment and social justice movements could be another way for co-ops to grow.

“Friends of the Earth has millions of supporters and they want to be doing the right thing. This includes working with co-ops. Working with the civil society and other movements can make the co-op movement much more active and popular,” he says.

In Australia, the Earthworker Cooperative works with FOEI to pressure the government to support the renewable energy sector.

“Earthworker is a renewable energy co-op that was set up in a coal mining area in Morwell Australia, so it’s a strong story about just transition,” he says, adding that more co-ops should be telling stories like this.

“It’s really important that co-ops use their voice, which is a voice of worker ownership, a voice in the economy and the voice of people being the change. Too often we don’t have enough positive stories out there of people who are living the change; co-ops are one of those examples you can point to for a better world. They should be much more engaged in political activism and advocacy.”

In its most recent Meat Atlas report FOEI explores the environmental impact of the expansion of industrial agriculture. The organisation supports agro-ecology and food sovereignty as well as the right of people to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced in ecologically sound and sustainable methods, and their right to their own food and agricultural systems.

“It makes logical business sense in a lot of agricultural settings to have a co-operative, because you need a certain number of people to share costs, such as marketing or other specialisations, so small scale, local farming really lends itself to the co-operative model.

“There are a lot of similarities and a lot of potential for co-operation and there is already substantive collaboration, with many small scale farmers across the Global South involved in the co-operative sector,” says Mr Cossar-Gilbert.

Recently agricultural co-ops in Europe have been raising concerns about the European Commission’s proposed Farm to Fork Strategy, which, they argue, will lead to emissions being exported elsewhere. The strategy aims to accelerate Europe’s transition to a sustainable food system that has a neutral or positive environmental impact and help to mitigate climate change and adapt to its impacts.

“Friends of the Earth Europe’s analysis found that the Farm to Fork strategy is a small step forward and what we really need is a giant leap to transform the agricultural system towards food sovereignty and agro-ecology,” said Mr Cossar-Gilbert. 

With regards to the EU-Mercosur negotiations for a trade agreement, which is also being opposed by agri food co-ops in Europe, FOEI says its initial analysis suggests it would have harmful environmental and social impacts and will increase deforestation in the Amazon, leading to further concentrations of agribusiness.

“Big co-ops can really play a role in opposing bad trade deals as well, like the EU-Mercosur deal,” he added.

As to the future of the co-operative movement, Mr Cossar-Gilbert thinks there is further potential for collaborations and turning co-operative businesses into spaces for activism.

“The future of co-ops is really about going back to their values, and reinvigorating through democracy, social justice and sustainability.

“Co-ops have a vital role to play in addressing climate change. They have a model and a structure that can facilitate not just decarbonisation but a better future. But they have got to be more active and engaged, work with others and collaborate with social movements as well as really try to show how the co-operative model can be relevant for addressing climate change.”