Executive series: How the Co-op raised the social justice bar

By Jack Kelly.

Modern slavery as part of social justice.

Those who engage with brutish, immoral practices such as modern slavery need to face harsh consequences.

We discussed this issue with Paul Gerrard, Group Policy Director at the Co-op, who prided himself on the company’s ability to consistently deliver high standards of ethics and sustainability since the company’s birth in 1844. In fact, he views the Co-op as a ‘champion of important issues’ and is grateful that the legislation – The Modern Slavery Act 2015 – has provided an increased awareness of the subject.


Creating an ethical business infrastructure

Some of the ways they try to achieve this are by creating an ethical, sustainable environment.  The Co-op sources 99% of its electricity from renewable sources and have reduced their direct carbon footprint by 43% since 2006In addition, the company have introduced modern slavery and human rights policies.

Paul Gerrard insisted that heart of the company’s sustainability strategy was primarily integrated with their identity as a ‘co-operative business’. In his words, the Co-op is completely member-driven. Such members are influential in determining how to move forward; identifying their needs and attempting to address potential problems and improvements. He extended on this, claiming that the board of the Co-op are perfectly equipped to tackle these sensitive social issues. They are familiar with social enterprises and projects aimed to monitor issues such as slavery. Paul Gerrard also regards the ‘deep relationship’ that the Co-op has with its suppliers as incredibly important. Not only does this provide a good foundation from which to build from, but also it ensures that there are no divisions present. Working together protects a stable, productive partnership.


Methods of tackling modern slavery

The ways in which the British retailer achieves this, is by training suppliers and ensuring that they have the skills and abilities in which to thrive. Paul Gerrard does insist, however, that this is a constant process and legislation can take time to embed itself into a company. He also considers the importance and relevance of auditors. They have a huge responsibility to develop a good relationship between the supply chains and the company. Consequently, when the auditors are monitoring the work practices for only one week of the year, there are measures in place to ensure that the other 51 weeks are just as productive and effective as that one.

What improvements could be made to the legislation?

While Paul Gerrard accepts that things are improving, he concedes that improvements can be made. For instance, businesses should be more responsible for helping victims of modern slavery. Internal systems should be in place for more support and guidance to help victims recover from this abhorrent abuse, certainly longer than the 45-day limit currently. There is a huge risk that slaves will return to their enslavers, which will only continue the cycle.

In addition, companies should face greater sanctions and punishments if they do not comply with the legislation. ‘It is easier and cheaper, at the moment, to be non-compliant than it is to be compliant’ – he says. Making reports of practices public is most certainly an incentive to push companies to make sure that practices are thorough and lawful.


Paul Gerrard will speak further on the subject at the Second Global Modern Slavery & Supply Chain Summit, 14 November 2017, London alongside Debenhams, JLL, Twinings, Travis Perkins, Nokia, Sainsbury’s, Baroness Young and the Gangmaster Labour Abuse Authority. Find out more here: https://front-group.co.uk/modernslavery/

Found the article of interest? Then take a look at the upcoming Modern Slavery & Human Rights in Supply Chain Conference here.