The Co-op is ambitious in its desire to be a business at the forefront of sustainable retailing, and this has inspired the drinks team to look at a number of planet-friendly initiatives. Sonya Hooks speaks with the Co-op’s head of drinks, Simon Cairns, to find out more:

The Co-op announced recently that it aims to sell fully carbon-neutral own-brands by 2025, as part of its ambitious climate plan to achieve net zero carbon emission by 2040.

Simon Cairns, the Co-op’s head of drinks, says there is “absolutely” a desire from the Co-op’s customer base for more planet-friendly products and practices and this has encouraged the retailer to look closely at its ownbrands.

But, he says, it is important these items don’t come with a premium price tag.

He says: “The intention from our point of view is that we have set a clear ambition with our own brand, but we follow that up with discussions with our branded partners as well.

“I don’t want to set suppliers an impossible challenge and that’s why we want to go on the journey ourselves. We want to try to take a bit of leadership in this space and for the benefit of our suppliers as well, because ultimately it is a goal that we as an industry share.”

The Co-op has never been solely focused on cost, Cairns says, because it has always had other considerations such as Fairtrade, One Foundation or other initiatives it supports, but this list of “other considerations” is now growing.

He says: “I would like to think that, when we are choosing the partner to work with, we will have considerations around whether or not they are helping businesses to reduce carbon or carbon offsetting, or whether or not they are using recycled packaging, or whether or not it is biodegradable packaging.

“I do think it is not just about being solely focused on cost as a buyer anymore; there are so many other facets that are important to the customer as well and we have to consider all of those things, but at the same time we still have to offer a great product and great value and it is finding that roadway through it.”

For the drinks sector, Cairns says the most obvious challenge when thinking about sustainability is that the packaging weight is directly associated with carbon consumption.

He says: “As an industry, over the years we started to see heavier and heavier packaging, because we have instilled in customers the belief that a heavier bottle equates to a better quality product. Changing some of that mindset is quite an interesting challenge.

“At the same time, customers now quite rightly say they don’t want plastics used in the same way they were previously. If it was just a question of taking weight out of our supply chain, we probably would look at whether we could switch from glass to plastic, but then the plastic we use would have to be recyclable and we then still must have that conversation with the customer to let them know that it is ‘good’ plastic, and that the reason for the change is about packaging weight.

“But there are brands out there that are looking at things in a different way. We have a brand on the shelf at the moment [Banrock Station] which is in a recycled PET flat bottle, which, from a shipping perspective, makes really efficient use of the space, but it is also a far lighter bottle. Sales are reasonably good, but quite honestly it is a lone voice at the moment.

“We need to make a bigger splash as an industry to show we are absolutely going down this route and that it is the right route. I am not saying the flat bottle is the only answer. I think we need to really consider the best options and how you can make change with some scale behind it.”


The Co-op will also be exploring more bag-in-box and canned drink options.

He says: “There are options we need to explore thoroughly while also thinking about how customers want to shop in the convenience channel or via Deliveroo. Is there a better option than moving around a glass bottle if you are going to be delivering it on the back of a bicycle? It’s that kind of thinking which gives us permission to explore different packaging options.”

Organic wine is another consideration for the drinks team when looking at sustainability, and this is an area where the retailer is already starting to gain traction.

Cairns says: “I would love to get to a stage where we can champion more organic production because it is a sustainable way of producing a crop. The good news is that the organic wines we have brought in have started to perform well.

Demand is growing but there is more we can do from an education point of view. We need to explain what it means to be organic and why it is a good choice to make.

“The viticulturalists and winemakers I have met who have moved to organic methods are so passionate. They must be really committed to switch to organic because, on the face of it, there is a lot of risk. I think we [as retailers] have got a responsibility there to support this for the longer term.”

The drinks team is also looking more closely at products that support sustainable initiatives.

In 2019 for example, the retailer joined forces with Taylor’s port to fund a reforestation project in the Douro Valley.

Last year it teamed up with Brewgooder and Robinsons Brewery to launch an exclusive beer to help fund clean water development projects in Africa.

The Brewgooder Foundation is on a mission to use the power of craft beer to bring clean drinking water to 1,00,000 people in developing countries, which Cairns says is “a great initiative”.

He says: “Another one is Toast Ale, producing beer from bread that would otherwise go to food waste. We have just brought some spirits in with a similar ethos called Discarded.

There is some good innovation with Hidden Sea Chardonnay. For me it is where, as a retailer, we can start to make a difference.

“What I say to the buyers is, it is great if you can find a good product that people enjoy consuming, but even better if you can find a product that is also actually helping to bring about positive change. That’s what we are trying to do, particularly as the Co-op is community-led.”

Collaboration projects with suppliers, but potentially with the wider industry too, are important, he notes.

“If we all sit in isolation and come up with our own individual solutions to the problem, it will take us a lot longer and it won’t be as consistent from a customer perspective.

“If we are a bit more open and working collaboratively about the shared challenge that we have as a drinks industry, then actually we will get somewhere far quicker with a collective voice which resonates more clearly with our customer.

Otherwise you are back to the flat bottle, which is great, but unless you are an incredibly well-meaning customer it is just an isolated product on-shelf.

“Customers want to see change in this space. I think very quickly it will become an absolute ask of our customers and if we are not proactive in this space, we are just not doing the right thing by them.”