1095 words approx. 5 minutes to read.

This morning I gave a speech to an audience MPs, senior civil servants and fellow business leaders setting out our co-operative thinking on Brexit trade deals, local communities and the climate emergency. I spoke about why co-operation must be central to how we respond to the greatest challenges we face today. The event in London was organised by the Westminster Business Forum.

Here are the main points I made.

Trade negotiations must put people before pounds

Global competitiveness is not an end in itself. It has to be rooted in the needs of families, communities, and the wellbeing of all citizens.

I’m all for “unleashing Britain’s potential”, as the Prime Minister has described it, but let’s make sure it’s a potential for good in the world, a potential that’s both value and values driven. That means trade deals which help us to maintain progress on welfare standards; that enable us to work easily with our nearest trading partners; and that allow our own communities to thrive – but not to the detriment of the poorest in the world.

At the Co-op, we want to continue to support British farmers and British produce. But can we and our UK farmers remain competitive if we’re not closely aligned to the EU? Or if we allow imports from around the world that can undercut our farmers because of different standards of welfare?

How would this be compatible with “taking back control” or gaining economic independence?

At the Co-op, we know that remaining competitive AND ethical is a constant challenge. But it’s a challenge we relish. It’s a healthy tension. And we’ve proved we can make it work for the benefit of everyone.

So the question is: will our new trading relationships with the EU and the rest of the world, make balancing ‘value and values’ harder or easier? In my experience, if you put ‘people before pounds’ you’ll get to the right answer.

Taking back control in a post Brexit UK

If the next phase of Brexit is about “taking back control” then it has to be done in a way that heals communities. Because Brexit has always been about more than trade deals.

The referendum result in 2016 didn’t just tell us that 52% of those that voted wanted to LEAVE. It also told us that a lot of people have become very angry with their lot in life. They don’t feel heard. They don’t have a say. They feel left out and left behind. They’ve lost belief and they’ve lost trust.

And alongside that ‘democratic deficit’ something else has been at play too.

There are some very serious differences about how people understand what it is to be British and what Britain’s place in the world should be.

So when we think about ‘Post-Brexit Britain’ we’re dealing with questions of individual identity, national identity, and community cohesion.

I believe co-operation has a big role to play in making things better.

Here’s why:

My Co-op, in fact all co-ops, are founded on values of fairness, self-help, democracy and autonomy. Co-operative thinking is about being ambitious for communities and putting them first in our decision making. We want communities to aspire. We want them to flourish.

To achieve that, they need to be heard and they need to be in control of their future. This is what “taking back control” has to look like if we’re to address the real issues underlying Brexit.

What’s clear is that new trade deals will not by themselves address the underlying issues of trust, representation, and lack of community empowerment which resulted in the 2016 referendum result. A post-Brexit Britain that’s serious about ”healing divides” and “levelling up” must invest in democracy in its widest sense. That includes more democratic influence in politics and in local enterprises.

Co-operating to respond to the climate emergency

Since 2006, at the Co-op we’ve been working to reduce our operational greenhouse gas emissions and have halved them over that time. Every one of our stores and branches have long been powered by 100% renewable energy. Last year we went further by setting ourselves science based targets to reduce our direct emissions by a further 50% by 2025 and our product related emissions by 11% by 2025.

By this summer all our own brand packaging will be easy to recycle, and we’re dramatically reducing how much of it we use in the first place.

But I’m not bragging. In fact, I say all this with great humility. Because none of it is enough.

And frankly, I’m getting very bored with businesses grand-standing on climate promises. This can’t be a game of “My target is bigger than your target!! So buy from us!!”

To meet this colossal challenge, we need to work together in a way none of us has ever done before. In fact, we need a co-operative response to climate change.

Here’s one example from food retail:

UN scientific advice is that we need to reduce meat and dairy in our diets by 20%. That alone requires a major shift in UK agriculture and a national education programme to go with it.

Retailers have a huge part to play in shifting the nation to a sustainable diet. But we’ll need to work together, and with the government, to achieve it – in co-operation, not in competition.

And moving to a zero carbon economy mustn’t mean we cast aside whole communities as we did in the 1980s as we moved to a post-industrial economy.

So, we need joined up thinking, underpinned by ethical responsibility, if no community is to get left behind.

I know it’s not easy. But if we don’t get this right, the divisions that led us to Brexit will be a walk in the park compared to what we’ll be dealing with. That’s why our thinking about community sustainability and environmental responsibility needs to come together in the years ahead.

It’s going to be everyone’s job to tackle this. Government. Business and Civil Society. It’s going to need co-operation on a huge scale. In retail business we need to pool our knowledge and work together to create a unified response to issues like packaging, plastic, electric lorries and how to help the public shift to a sustainable diet.

Greater competition won’t fix climate Change. Greater co-operation will.

I doubt any previous generation has faced the scale of challenge that we do today. And there is no template and no precedent to tell us how to deal with this.

I believe we can co-operate our way through these challenges but only if we’re willing to think and work in very different ways than we’ve become used to.

Steve Murrells,
CEO, the Co-op 

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Join the conversation! 4 Comments

  1. The Co-op were always the trailblazer and appear to be set to continue in that tradition. Proud to be a part of it.

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  2. well done,good example to others

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  3. This is a thoughtful, considered response to the great challenge of our time. It is so good to see the role of co-ops foregrounded not only as a model (and education) to challenge climate crisis and help develop livelihoods but as an ethical lens to help to support community development, equalities and empowerment. That is what co-ops and co-operators have always sought to do and it is absolutely imperative that the co-operative difference as both a practical and ethical approach is progressed as we face the unknowable future of work, planet meltdown and massive and enduring inequality.

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  4. Excellent piece, glad that Steve Murrells is saying this at such a public and political setting. As he’s the CEO of the largest Co-op in the UK the media might just print it.

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