Interview with Paul Gerrard, The Co-op, by Adam Woodhall, Inspiring Sustainability, and Jessica Cresswell, Carbon Smart
The Co-op has been one of the leading businesses to campaign for the introduction of the UK Modern Slavery Act. What was your vision with the creation of the Act?
At the Co-op, we are all about championing a better way of doing business. For us, as the largest co-operative in the country, it is about coming together, supporting one another, leaving nobody behind.
Our vision for the MSA
was to create a real common assured goal that will make the UK a hostile place for traffickers to operate. I think that can be proud of the start we have made here in the UK. We have become a genuine leader on tackling modern slavery across the globe, which is testament to many people, including the government and heroes in the NGO sector.
The key to tackling slavery
How do you engage with your suppliers?
We bring people together - it’s the co-operative thing to do. This allows businesses to begin to understand the risks they face and allows them to share and develop solutions. To do so, we facilitate regional supplier forums, we hold annual supplier conferences and support the development of supply from overseas countries. We also have one to one reviews which supports the building up of great supplier relationships.
One of the key tools we used to engage with our suppliers is through the Stronger Together initiative. Not only does it raise awareness of modern slavery risks but it also helps businesses understand how to embed processes that prevent and tackle the issues. Over 90% of our own band suppliers have attended the Stronger Together training.
What was the key to Co-op’s successful approach?
I would like to draw two things out. Firstly, it was creating a safe space for our suppliers to discuss common challenges and share best practice. For 10 years, we have been running a supplier training programme and it has been one of the most effective ways to engage with suppliers, win heart and minds, but critically improve behaviour. Secondly, which is a bit more processy, was embedding ethical trade expectations and supplier selection criteria into our business process.
What lessons learnt can you share with other businesses?
Always try to develop collaborative solutions, rather than trying to reinvent the wheel each time. Once you have developed a solution share it, allowing suppliers to learn from them and save some of the pain. Modern slavery is about organised criminality and very vulnerable people. This is a complex mix and no one, individual or organisation, has the answer, but together we might.
Supporting victims of slavery
What is the Co-op doing about supporting victims of slavery?
Like our founders did back in 1862, we stand in solidarity with those enslaved and fighting for better treatment for those who are victims. At our AGM we will vote as a business to commit ourselves to support campaigns to help victims of modern slavery.
Tell us about one of your campaigns.
In March this year, we launched ‘Project Bright Future’; a programme where we provide a pathway to paid employment for victims of modern slavery. So far, we have already had four victims complete the programme and three of those, I am hugely proud to say, are now my colleagues in the Co-op. Our ambition is to put at least another 30 people through the programme by the end of the year.
What was a key impact within the business?
Developing a sound approach to tackling modern slavery is not only the right thing to do, but you can help a business connect and you can make a business feel proud of what it does. The number of people that have come up to me since we announced ‘Project Bright Future’ in March and said, “I am so proud that it’s our business.” The reaction from colleagues and council members has been phenomenal. This makes it clear how important to engage and inspire your colleagues, because it is they who will make your business fly.
Finally, what would be your message to other businesses?
Any business that wants to do what we’ve done and provide opportunities for victims of modern slavery to become survivors, all they’ve got to do is ask us and we will give them everything that we’ve worked on. This is all our process sheets, all our wordings, all the ways we’ve made this happen – because this isn’t about us keeping something private and unique. That isn’t success. Success is that many of businesses in the UK support victims, so those victims can become survivors. And I think that’s a important thing for us, that this is about the business sector in the UK, not just the Co-op, that’s why we call it ‘The Co-op way’.