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More ethical consumers are boosting East Anglia’s co-operative businesses

PUBLISHED: 06:15 21 June 2017 | UPDATED: 10:07 23 June 2017

Minnie Moll, joint chief executive of the East of England Co-op. Picture: East of England Co-op

Minnie Moll, joint chief executive of the East of England Co-op. Picture: East of England Co-op

Archant

A “groundswell” in favour of companies who wear their heart of their sleeve is boosting the momentum of co-operatives in the East of England.

In its annual state of the sector report, The UK co-operative economy 2017, Co-operatives UK said membership of the organisations – epitomised by the likes of Co-op Group and John Lewis – rose by 700,000 last year, bringing the total number of active members to 13.6 million.

The trade body, which represents member- and community-owned businesses, also revealed the results of a YouGov poll showing only a quarter of people feel they have influence in their workplace while two thirds (64%) feel they can’t influence their local area.

In the eastern region there are 435 co-ops with a combined turnover of £1.63bn, including Fram Farmers, Anglia Farmers and G’s Growers.

East of England Co-op has around 4,300 employees across more than 200 stores and branches.

Joint chief executive Minnie Moll said: “There are many reports out there which say people want to buy from companies with ethics and principles.

“I feel there is a groundswell against corporations and city fat cats who misuse their power. An enormous amount of trust has been eroded in recent years in many sectors. We know from customers that there is an inherent trust in the Co-op.”

She added: “In the last two years especially it feels like there is a lot of momentum around the co-operative movement. It is good that reports like these come out every year to show there is another viable business model.”

Leading Lives, East Anglia’s only social care co-operative, provides care for adults with learning disabilities. The Ipswich-based business is employee-owned, with around 290 of its 500 staff being members.

Joint operations director Anne Hubbard said: “There is a lot of mobility among staff in the social care workforce, but we like to think we offer something extra.

“If our staff become members they have a vested interest, and if you have that you will give a bit more effort, so our customers will get better care and support.”

With public demand for a fairer economy becoming more prevalent amid political uncertainty, new figures have shown the resilience of the UK’s co-operative sector.

The Co-operatives UK report found there are 6,815 independent co-operatives in the UK, from farmer-owned businesses to web developers, which employ 226,000 people and together turned over £36bn last year.

Most of this came from high street retailers including the Co-op Group, which despite market challenges increased their collective turnover from £22.6bn to £23.2bn.

Despite being affected more than most by the political upheaval of the past year, agricultural co-ops performed well with an increase in the number of farmers using them to trade. The number of farmers who are members of co-operatives also rose to 152,000.

A trend for digital and creative co-ops was also identified with a 28% rise in the number of start-ups among digital and arts organisations, accounting for 10% of all co-op start-ups in the year.

Ed Mayo, secretary general of Co-operatives UK, said: “Underlying the political shocks the country has experienced over the last year is a call from many parts of the UK population for an economy over which they have more of a say and from which they get a fair share.

“The UK’s 7,000 co-ops give people a say in what they do and how their profits are used. They offer a practical way to reimagine an economy in which people have more control over their homes, work and local areas.”

Growing sales show “resilience”

Despite a turbulent year for the UK food sector, with the market share of discounters continuing to rise and inflation pushing up prices, the East of England Co-op has continued to see its turnover and profits rise.

The co-operative saw its turnover rise by 3% to £347.7m in the year to January 28, 2017.

Joint chief executive Minnie Moll said: “The food market in the UK is a mature market which has been facing absolutely unprecedented change, particularly from discounters.

“We saw a 3% increase in food sales last year and we feel really pleased with that and feel it is a real signal of resilience.”

Its Sourced Locally campaign has helped to reconnect shoppers across its 137 food stores in Norfolk, Suffolk and Essex with local produce while also providing a fairer trade for suppliers.

Ms Moll said the scheme was an “exemplary” example of “small things making a big difference”.

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