The Co-operative Group : Reassuring habits

A trusted reputation builder suffers from uncritical re-use

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The feature

The Co-operative Group, UK member-owned retail group, weakens its reputation building by sticking with a trusted feature of its sustainability reporting.

The Co-operative’s annual Sustainability Report uses a picture index on its home page as a browsable guide to its contents. Among the panels is Expert commentary, which shows an uncaptioned head-and-shoulders picture of a man above a short quote and link through to the full text. The Expert commentary page identifies the man as Jonathon Porrit, ‘Founding Director of Forum for the Future’, who is a prominent environmentalist in the UK. There is no introduction or explanatory text other than the commentary itself. In the course of this Mr Porrit acknowledges that his organisation benefits from support from The Co-operative and that this is the seventh year it has used him to comment on the report.

Within the What’s in our report section, a down-page link is provided on the Managing sustainability page under the heading Assurance to a two-page Independent assurance statement from a third-party licensed certification and verification agency, DNV.GL. It provides a ‘strengths and weaknesses’ assessment of the report’s contents and the group’s sustainability management systems.

The takeaway

The Co-operative had a tough time in 2013 – its bank on the edge of meltdown and scandal reaching into the boardroom. But it was all happening too far away from sustainability to have a direct bearing on the report, as Mr Porrit says before getting down to his commentary. Except. Customers and the wider public will now approach everything the group does and says with much more suspicion. Reassurance as usual suddenly sounds less convincing.

At the least, The Co-operative needed to make a bigger pitch of its laudable double-barrelled dose of external scrutiny. The ‘needs no introduction’ introduction to Mr Porrit looks too cosy now: who is he? how was he chosen? how can we be sure he isn’t too much of an old mate (seven years and counting)? Similarly, the presence ofDNV.GL’s more clinical assessment needs bringing to the fore, not burying away where only professionals are likely to find it. Cross-linking with Mr Porrit’s piece would be a good start. More radically, The Co-operative could have gone with a fresh commentator or explored new ideas for presenting the external view. Something anyway to send the message that the organisation is not being complacent. Reputation management, which is what this is, involves more than containing fires; the smoke drifts into everyone’s eyes.

First published 03 July, 2014
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