Environmental sustainability and the role of co-operatives

Environmental sustainability and the role of co-operatives

I’m not a greenie, nor an academic or activist. I’m an everyday Kiwi who has the privilege of leading NZ’s apex body for co-operatives, mutuals and societies which, together, generate almost one-fifth of our GDP and serve 1 in 3 Kiwis as members.

My role provides me with insight into the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals and, more importantly, the part that co-operatives, and the co-op movement globally, play in achieving these by 2030. Co-ops currently employ more than 250 million people worldwide while one in six humans belong to at least one.

A timely reality check came last week while I was tracking through the bush in Vanuatu and I came across a local tribesman passionately explaining the changes in his local habitat in recent years. His reality was clearly spelled out in his messages, see right and below, and followed extreme weather events on his island as a result of global warming, pollution and waste found in the surrounding Pacific Ocean, and de-forestation with its impact on local wildlife.

The following written message by the tribesman made an instant and lasting impact:

  • When all the trees are cut down
  • When all the animals are dead
  • When all the air is unsafe to breathe
  • When all the water is poison
  • Only then will we discover that we can’t eat money.

Further along the trail was the road sign with various factors posted and culminating in the words: “You made it, now we are all affected”.

Earlier that day, July 7th, we had celebrated the International Day of Co-operatives in Port Vila. This was the 96th consecutive year that this celebration has been held globally and this year’s theme was “Sustainable Consumption and Production of Goods and Services”.

Clearly the consumption and production of food dominates this subject while co-operatives sit at the interface of agricultural producers and consumers globally providing an excellent opportunity to drive the right behaviours from both. In terms of food consumption, the UN estimates that over one-third is wasted globally at present (over 1.3 billion tonnes pa) while we have over 800 million humans are significantly underfed and starving each day.

In NZ, our household and commercial food wastage is no better than other OECD countries while only a small portion of our food that has met its recommended expiry dates is being provided to those in poverty before it is dumped.

The UN predicts that given our current levels, patterns and practices of food consumption and production, along with global population growth forecasts, we will need three planet earths in order to survive when the world’s population reaches 9.5 billion by 2045.

Our world’s current population projections are as follows (billions):

  • 2018: 7.6
  • 2020: 7.8
  • 2030: 8.5
  • 2045: 9.5
  • 2055: 10.0

Clearly, we must change our consumption and production behaviours significantly and quickly. This includes less food wastage, alternative (and more affordable) foods, sustainable farming and food manufacturing practices, and the efficient utilization of our natural resources so that this does not impact upon the ability of our future generations to do the same.

Then we came to the display in the Vanuatu bush about plastic bags and plastic waste in our oceans. Earlier this year the local Vanuatu government announced a ban of single use plastic bags and polystyrene boxes following a review of the state of its beaches and surrounding ocean.

This subject has attracted a lot of media coverage globally in recent months and rightfully so, the pictures tell it all:

It is difficult to understand how those living on this planet, and especially near our oceans, could have let things become so bad.


Encouraging progress appears to have been made towards reducing the burning of fossil fuels globally following the Paris Climate Agreement in 2015. Here in NZ, the closing of new oil and gas explorations off the Taranaki coast recently, along with our new government’s pledge to plant more than one billion trees over the next 10 years, may have been significant steps in the right direction although our dams will need to remain sufficiently full otherwise we will need to revert to alternative sources of energy (and preferably not via the burning fossil fuels).

Then I see pictures of massive de-forestation in countries like West Papua for the sake of palm oil production, otherwise to utilize the timber as a source of fuel or the land for new housing. This must have a big impact in reducing the ability of the planet’s atmosphere to soak up and neutralise the world’s carbon emissions.

So what can we do here in NZ as members of the public, workers in businesses and organisations, member of co-operatives and inhabitants on this planet? My simplistic views are as follows:

  1. Burn less fossil fuels, more use of hydro, solar, wind and geo-thermal power. What about the vast potential in drawing energy from our oceans (tidal power?).
  2. Educate our homeowners, businesses and manufacturers to utilize energy more efficiently.
  3. Become world leaders in the adoption and utilisation of electric cars.
  4. Become even better at recycling packaging materials (households and businesses).
  5. Reduce food waste in our homes. Provide food at levels that meet realistic and healthy requirements for ourselves and our families without over supply.
  6. Provide more food that is destined to be dumped to those in poverty.
  7. Use less packaging materials – is there a case of bring consumers closer to agri-producers in terms of direct supply that would not involve packaging?
  8. Plant the one billion trees that our new government has pledged to over the next 10 years.
  9. Penalise those who litter and dump waste into our oceans, rivers and waterways, as well as in our towns, cities and rural areas a lot more strongly (zero tolerance approach).
  10. Apply the right volumes of fertilizer onto the right pastures at the right time (no excess).
  11. Insist that our town and city councils throughout NZ invest sufficiently in storm water and sewerage drainage and systems so that our beaches and waterways don’t become polluted.
  12. Aim for and achieve 90% swimmable rivers by 2040, as pledged last year by key stakeholders.

So what role can co-operatives play? Apart from representing a large portion of the world’s agri-producers, co-operatives serve around 1 in 6 humans on our planet as members while employing over 250 million people. Co-ops are therefore in a prime position to drive change within the consumption and production of food, including the treatment and disposal of food waste. With the co-operative business model being one of endurance and survival (over 70% of Cooperative Business NZ’s current 65 Full Members are now over 20 years old, while 5 have been successfully operating for over a century), environmental sustainability must be at the core of long term thinking.

Here in NZ 6 of our 7 largest co-ops are involved in the production and / or retail distribution of food – Fonterra, Foodstuffs North Island, Foodstuffs South Island, Silver Fern Farms, Alliance and Zespri, between them currently turning over more than $NZ 30 billion pa and around 14% of NZ’s GDP.

Let’s take a closer look at both Foodstuffs co-operatives, with their 138 New World, 57 PAK’nSAVE and 245 Four Square grocery stores nationally and market share of around 60%, currently employing over 30,000 staff. Both organisations have a very strong focus and proven commitment towards supporting NZ’s environment, local communities and those in need. Here is a quick snapshot of some of these initiatives:

  • Goal of 100% of all retail and private label packaging to be either re-usable, re-cyclable, or compostable by 2025.  Encouragement of other companies, including suppliers, to do the same.
  • Committed to a waste minimisation programme in all stores, involving a 90% diversion of all waste away from landfill.
  • Banning of single-use plastic bags at the checkout from all New World, PAK’nSAVE and Four Square stores by the end of 2018. Foodstuffs is taking a lead position on this by being an early adopter, while also educating NZ’ers to utilise re-usable bags, which requires significant behaviour change.
  • Taking a strong position by giving away more than two million re-usable bags nationally (more than a 600% increase in usage over the last six months); principal backers of the “Bags Not” campaign; provision of a five cent rebate for customers using re-usable bags in New World’s North Island stores over the past two years which has resulted in a 20% drop in the use of single-use plastic bags.
  • First supermarket business in NZ to introduce kerbside re-cyclable food trays containing 50% recycled PET, providing customers with the opportunity to divert up to 100 million food trays from landfill every year. Trays collected at the kerbside are re-cycled and then appear back in Foodstuffs’ stores.
  • Full support for the development of a circular economy for plastic by moving to specify recycled content in more of its packaging, along with working with industry partners to develop domestic markets for recovered plastics.
  • Rolling out ‘Project Naked’ in selected produce departments, having developed a new way to keep fruit and veges fresh and in top condition without plastic, instead using a spray misting system.
  • Working in partnership with Sea Cleaners to help clean up waterways and oceans around NZ.  For more information: seacleaners.com.
  • First supermarket business in NZ to go 100% micro-bead free – a full year ahead of the Government’s mandate.

In terms of social responsibility and the provision and consumption of food, Foodstuffs has been generous in supporting local communities and those in need across NZ. “Food for Thought” is a school based programme which educates children (and their families) on how to make informed, and therefore, healthier food and beverage choices. Its estimated to have reduced sugar intake by a staggering 50 tonnes over the last 10 years. To date 150,000 children have been through the programme.

Foodstuffs North Island has invested in the “Eat My Lunch” social enterprise programme – with a view to helping them provide lunches up to 25,000 children in need each day. In addition, both co-operatives donate the equivalent of an impressive four million meals to foodbanks and community providers nationally each year.

Foodstuffs South Island is a principal supporter of the “Brown Bag Appeal”, which is a massive food- raiser for South Islanders in need. Its charitable entity, The Foodstuffs (South Island) Community Trust supports both individuals and organisations in their communities – last financial year this exceeded $NZ 444,000 in grants.

Finally, New World is a five-star sponsor of the Starship Foundation having just reached the $NZ 1.0 million mark in donations over the last 4 years. All very impressive!


There is no doubt that humans must change their consumption and production patterns, practices and behaviours in relation to food, as well as across all goods and services, and the world’s co-operatives are playing a leading role in this. We need to move quickly so that vulnerable countries like Vanuatu, already struggling from the effects of significant cyclones each year, are not left behind.

The world’s co-operatives sit at the interface of agricultural producers and consumers. With 1 in 6 humans as members, co-operatives have a real opportunity to drive change. Here in NZ we all have the opportunity to conduct, influence and drive the right behaviours in relation to environmental sustainability and the responsible consumption and production of food, along with all goods and services (UN’s SDG No 12).

NZ’s co-operatives generate almost one fifth of our GDP while 6 of the top 7 co-ops are involved in the production and / or retail distribution of food. All 6 businesses have invested heavily into driving environmental sustainability initiatives over the past decade (and more), for example Fonterra has spent over $NZ 1.0 billion on environmental initiatives between 2012 and 2017, including fencing off more than 98% of significant waterways on its farms.

Foodstuffs North Island and Foodstuffs South Island, with dominant market share across the supply of food and groceries nationally, has been a leader in driving initiatives involving re-usable, re-cyclable and compostable packaging materials while educating NZ’ers on the use of re-usable bags along with the responsible consumption of food, eg. less sugar. In addition, both co-ops have been very generous in providing food, including school lunches, to those most in need, along with significant funding to charitable organisations such as the Starship Foundation. Both are world-leading food retail co-operatives.

NZ can lead the way globally by becoming the world’s most sustainable nation.

Craig Presland

CEO, Co-operative Business NZ

16th July 2018.