The responsible business code: what does it mean for co-ops?

Euro Coop has been working closely with the Commission on the Code.

The European Commission is developing a code of conduct for responsible business and marketing practices and retail co-operatives have been invited to highlight the sector’s experience in this area.

The Code forms part of the Commission’s Farm to Fork Strategy and will “set out the actions that the actors ‘between the farm and the fork’, such as food processors, food service operators and retailers, can voluntarily commit to undertake to tangibly improve and communicate their sustainability performance”.

The process to develop the Code of Conduct started in December 2020. Euro Coop, a sectoral organisation of the International Cooperative Alliance, has been working closely with the Commission on the code. During a recent ICA online event, secretary general Todor Ivanov said Euro Coop would promote the code among members, facilitate co-operative engagement and be involved in its future review.

While the code will not be legally binding, the Commission said it would consider legislative measures if progress is deemed insufficient. Should mandatory legislation be adopted, it will have a global impact since businesses in the EU work with others across the world. Such legislation could make retailers guarantee due diligence across the supply chain for every single product they sell.

The code was designed to champion sustainability in global supply chains and tackle human rights and child labour issues and exploitation, among others, said Mr Ivanov. The Commission aims to achieve this by having companies design tangible actions, which makes the healthier choice for consumers the easier choice. The code will ask companies to present their motivation behind their commitments, identify actions they are taking to address the issue and identify KPIs and the baseline not earlier than 2015 to measure progress. They also need to report on their progress once a year – this will be published in the public domain.

The code wants to design commitments in three different areas: food consumption matters, internal processes and value chains. Each aspirational objective within the code has aspirational targets.

“This is a voluntary code but the biggest take away is that it aims to create the drive, impetus, to make companies thinking about competing on the sustainability front and report on what there are doing. The commission may consider legislating measures if progress is deemed insufficient,” said Mr Ivanov.

“Commitments beyond legislation have become standard practice for co-ops,” he added. For example, Coop Italy conducted 13,000 on-site inspections on fruit and veg farms to tackle gang mastering. For 40 years the retailer have been working with the Ministry of Education to promote sustainability in schools.

In the UK the Co-op Group and other retail co-ops support victims of modern slavery as they start building a new life via the Bright Future initiative, which itself became a co-operative last year. The Group has also adopted a ten-point Climate Plan to become climate neutral by 2040. Similarly, in Finland, co-operative retailer S-Group committed to becoming carbon negative by 2025. Meanwhile, Coop Norway co-founded the country’s Ethical Trading Initiative.

Yet, while retail co-operatives continue to do their bit, they require an enabling policy and regulatory environment to continue to drive the sustainability agenda. Measures to incentivise sustainability innovation, provide capacity funding, include sustainability on schools’ curricula and ensure a level playing field for all economic models could help retail co-operatives achieve even more, said Mr Ivanov.

“The ethical supply chain is a very broad but extremely important discussion. Consumer co-ops have a role in continuing collaboration and driving the agenda,” he added.

The Commission aimed to have the Code of Conduct ready for signature and endorsement by interested parties in June 2021.