How ethical is the Co-op supermarket?
Our research explores the Co-op supermarket’s approach to a range of ethical issues, including climate change, palm oil, cocoa sourcing, supply chain management, policy on Israeli settlements, gender pay, animal rights, and tax.
Below we outline some of these issues. To see the full detailed stories, and the Co-op’s overall ethical rating, please sign in or subscribe.
The Co-op is Fair Tax Mark accredited, showing it is committed to paying its fair amount of tax.
It’s also a cooperative, so was awarded a positive Company Ethos mark in our rating system for having a mutual structure.
However, it pays excessive remuneration to executives – its 2020 annual report showed that over 6 executives received above £250,000 and four received over £1m that year. The highest paid received £2.2m.
The company received Ethical Consumer’s best rating for Carbon Management and Reporting, Timber Sourcing, Toxic Chemicals and Environmental Reporting.
It received a middle rating for palm oil sourcing, because although it sources most of its palm oil from physically certified supply chains, it doesn’t publish an annually updated grievance list or publish a list of all its mills and producer groups.
A January 2021 Greenpeace report, ‘Checking Out On Plastic III’, tracked the progress of 10 UK supermarkets and ranked them on plastic usage. The Co-op was found to have the third-lowest plastic tonnage per unit of market share.
The Co-op has been more outspoken than most supermarkets when it comes to the issues of produce sourced from illegal Israeli settlements on Palestinian land. Its Human Rights and Trade Policy sets out the circumstances under which the company will withdraw trade from a state, area or settlement, and Israeli settlements fall under this.
The Co-op says that it will “not source any produce or own-brand products from the Israeli settlements” in the Palestinian Occupied Territories. In 2012 the board said that it would “additionally no longer engage with any supplier of produce known to be sourcing from the Israeli settlements.” The Co-op does continue to trade with Israeli businesses that do not source from settlements.
The Co-op received best Ethical Consumer ratings for Supply Chain Management and Cocoa Sourcing, and 100% of its cocoa had been certified by the Fairtrade Foundation since 2017.
However, in October 2021 the Co-op was one of several supermarkets named in a lawsuit accusing the company of poor labour conditions in its tea supply chain in Kenya. The coop stated that all its tea was Fairtrade, and it worked immediately with all parties if problems were identified. No updates on the lawsuit or any outcomes have been identified.
The Co-op was also one of several supermarkets criticised for failing to provide adequate working conditions for migrant agricultural supply chain workers in southern Spain.
Ethical Consumer has been campaigning on issues in southern Spain since 2018 and has called on supermarkets to ensure adequate working conditions for migrant workers picking fruit and vegetables in the the region. All UK supermarkets source from the region where workers’ rights abuses are endemic, and none are considered to be taking adequate action to mitigate the risk of issues like forced labour and poor working conditions.
In 2018 an employment tribunal also ruled in favour of a company director who was “directly discriminated against… on the ground of sex”. An independent assessment of executive roles found the claimant Sam Walker to be at least as high or higher than male executives while her payment was less.
In another lawsuit, The Co-op is also one of many supermarkets accused of paying shop workers (mainly women) less than warehouse workers (mainly men). Law firm Leigh Day is representing the workers.
While the Co-op does have animal welfare policies it lost a whole mark in Ethical Consumer’s Animal Rights and Animal Welfare categories as it sells a broad range of meat and dairy that is not marketed as organic or free range.
According to the 2020 Business Benchmark on Farm Animal Welfare (BBFAW) report, supported by Compassion in World Farming, animal welfare is considered to be integral to the company’s business strategy.
It received a middle rating for Animal Testing. It is considered positive that all Co-op branded products carry Cruelty Free International’s Leaping Bunny label (and have done since 2004). However, it retails products from other brands that do not have strong 'no animal testing' policies.
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