Midcounties Co-operative’s social responsibility manager Mike Pickering explains how a focus on localism can lead to business success
Interview by Tom Idle — As the largest independent co-operative in the UK, with 9,000 staff across more than 500 sites, the Midcounties Co-operative is a big business.
With honesty, equality and democracy at the core of its purpose to serve local communities (and turn a profit for the members which own it), the £1bn turnover organisation is on a mission to prove the co-operative model is not dead yet. Picking up the Overall Excellence in Social Responsibility trophy at the recent National CSR Awards is just the start, says Mike Pickering, the man charged with making sure the company creates as much social value, in the right places, as possible.
TI: With such a broad range of businesses under the Midcounties Co-operative umbrella – food, travel, pharmacy andfuneral– how do you determine what is of most material importance from a sustainability point of view?
MP: We are owned by our 500,000 members and they give us the direction as to where they feel we should focus.
Obviously, we have internal mechanisms, such as our environmental steering group, to help determine where our biggest impacts are. But it is our members that guide us to address the issues most prevalent in their local communities.
All of our businesses follow our Society Steering Wheel, which ensures they meet certain criteria, whether that be saving energy, supporting community projects or promoting ethical trade, for example.
TI: In terms of servicing the sustainability agenda internally, does being a co-operative make your job easier?
MP: Yes and no. The thing that makes it easier is the buy-in you get from the top and right way through the business. We are pushing against an open door when it comes to adopting sustainability measures.
But we do have a passionate group of stakeholders who are always making sure we raise the bar and be the best we can be.
TI: Your core values as a business are democracy, equality and honesty. Does this approach present specific challenges from a management standpoint? After all, you can have too much democracy and honesty when running a business, can’t you?
MP: Well, it has to be managed properly, with the right mechanisms in place to allow people to have their say. And you have to give members the information they need to help them make informed decisions.
TI: What is keeping you awake at night right now?
MP: In general, there are loads of good things going on within the business community. But what’s most important is really making a difference and prioritising where we can make the biggest impacts.
TI: How do you know you’re doing a good job? A National CSR Award is a validation of your efforts, but what other metrics do you use to assess progress?
MP: Internally, we have business metrics such as energy saving and recycling.
We also have community-focused targets, including fundraising totals and identifying key local community priorities each year. So, rather than just guess, we want to target the local issues of most significance. This year, one local community has picked raising awareness of dementia and autism, for example.
Ultimately, we are judged by our members. When we present back to members every year on how we are doing, they will vote as to whether to continue with this activity and the investment we put into it.
TI: According to your latest social responsibility report, you made £58m in ethical trade sales in 2014, up 25% on the previous year. What constitutes an ethical trade sale?
MP: Our criteria for ethical trade is Fairtrade, organic and animal welfare certified products.We have campaigns in place for all of these.
TI: Why do you make non-ethical trade sales?
MP: Co-op branded products certainly are ethical. But ultimately, the business is run as a democracy, with our members choosing what we stock and what we don’t stock. Right now, they believe we need a mix of different products to be a profitable business.
TI: Do you find yourselves having to compete on sustainability with competitors?
MP: To an extent, there is some healthy competition.
We are a part of a number of collective groups, like Business in the Community, because we want to share information about how we are doing things. Collaboration is fairly high, even amongst competitive retailers.
TI: And what does that collaboration look like?
MP: There is lots of sharing of best practice on things like energy saving and recycling. Putting doors on chillers to save energy or tackling food waste by sending it to anaerobic digestion are initiatives where companies are helping each other out.
TI: How important is your purpose – as a cooperative with entrenched values – to your economic success as a business?
MP: The purpose is hugely important. But it’s only important if it’s embedded in the business. Without our Steering Wheel, which is a response to our purpose and targets all of our businesses and sites to meet certain standards, our purpose means nothing.
TI: Do your customers care? Is it your values and purpose that make them loyal?
Yes, I think it’s key to our competitiveness. We are the local community retailer – and seen as such – because of our projects and the fundraising we do. Our members, who live locally and are also customers, give us great feedback and let us know how we are doing.
TI: So, what’s next for you, Mike?
MP: We have gone from supporting one national charity partner, to having numerous local partner charities, and we want as many of our members involved in that process as possible.