Approx 1000 words.
As we emerge from an exhausting and traumatic year in the nation’s history, many thousands of families are still in mourning for those they’ve lost and many millions more are facing into the devastating effect this cruel pandemic has left on their lives. We know there’s a long road ahead in our own country, but perhaps an even greater one in other parts of the world, with many countries still in the terrible grip of the pandemic.
When I spoke last week at our Co-op AGM, I rightly acknowledged the amazing contribution of my 63,000 colleagues who helped to care and feed our nation during the crisis. Their efforts, in many ways, epitomised a wider community response which has brought out the best in so many and brought us together.
With the vaccine roll out in full swing and more parts of the economy and “normal” life opening up, many are understandably starting to feel some sense of optimism. But we must resist the temptation to put on rose-tinted glasses.
If there’s one myth that needs busting around the Covid-19 crisis, it’s the belief that it’s been a “great leveller”.
Few have been immune from the Covid impact but it’s clear that some have been hit harder than others. When shocks come, they are always felt the hardest by those who are already most vulnerable and least equipped to cope.
Only the well-off can stockpile food. Social distancing is different when you live in a high rise flat. Not everyone has broadband at home. Many don’t have a friend or family member they can call upon when they are feeling anxious.
The inequalities and unfairness that existed long before the pandemic, grip our communities even harder today.
If we genuinely want to build back Britain different and better, then this must be a decade of collective action, where decisions are taken and implemented for the benefit of communities across the UK so we address the inequalities that have plagued our nation for simply too long.
What is true is that there is huge potential and talent in every community in the UK. It is also true that the opportunities to use such talent are not there for every community.
It’s for that reason that supporting aspiration, tackling inequality and promoting social mobility is at the very core of our Vision of “Co-operating for a Fairer World”.
The heart of every co-operative has always been the idea that by coming together we can all improve our situation, and make sure that nobody gets left behind. We will take action to address the inter-connected, structural inequalities in our country be it about skills & employment for young people; diversity and inclusion; mental wellbeing and education or access to food. As we find out what works, we’ll look to build partnerships to grow the impact it can have. We’ll be an open book for policy makers in terms of what we have learnt.
We know that by taking a co-operative approach, we will achieve far more overall. Take, for example, the apprenticeship levy matchmaking scheme we launched earlier this year or our pioneering Diversity & Inclusion commitments. The common denominator is that all of these initiatives will be delivered in partnership and through meaningful co-operation with others. Together the sum of the parts will create a greater whole. This is about what we can achieve as a nation.
And this same set of values and beliefs are guiding our response to the climate crisis where the science is indisputable and the facts are as shocking as they are stark. The scale and danger posed to us and more importantly our future generations, means we simply all have a part to play, now.
We are on a six-month count down to the biggest climate-focused conference in the world – COP26. A make-or-break moment for global diplomacy and action on climate change. It will no doubt prompt most of us to reappraise our own efforts – as individuals and as business leaders.
And on that reappraisal, I want to share the Co-op’s ambition to do more than its fair share to help reduce our own impact but also seek to drive change through our suppliers and by collaborating with other major supermarkets. Recently our Co-op set out its 10-point plan to achieve net zero by 2040. We have set out a clear roadmap to make changes to our direct operations, throughout our supply chains and the way our consumers use and dispose of our products too.
As well as setting clear short-term milestones to rapidly reduce carbon across our Food, Funeralcare, Insurance and Power businesses, the plan is rooted around three principles: that we will follow the science in our decision making; that we will work for a fair transition so solving the climate crisis doesn’t come at the expense of those who can least afford it; and we’ll co-operate for system change.
Age of Co-operation
Underpinning all the above is my belief that we need a new conversation about the relationship between business and society. The economy is too narrowly defined as commercial activity. The economy is also our schools, our hospitals, our welfare provision, our charities, our community volunteers. All of these sectors of society should be considered ‘productive’ and their strength a measure of national prosperity. The economy is all of us and society most definitely is.
There will be some who will want to use this moment to become even more inward looking, even more narrow in our concerns and compassion. We must use our influence to work hard against that reaction. The new world we need to imagine is an “Age of Co-operation” at a local, national and international level. And it’s already started. Now we must decide by working together how far it can go. As active members who are the very heart of our Vision, my ask is a simple one – keep pushing us to deliver on our fairer agenda and please encourage your friends and family to join us so we can achieve even more.