7 December 2018

Mark Smith talks about the benefits of being a Responsible Business

Mark Smith, CEO of Southern Co-op, was previously appointed by HRH The Prince of Wales as his Responsible Business Ambassador for the South East, a title he held for a year. With a passion and drive to help business understand the benefits that being a responsible business brings, Mark is now spearheading a new initiative combining forces with Business South through the Workforce South Action Group, called ‘Responsible South.’

Why are you promoting the Responsible South initiative?

As a responsible, regional business, we believe it’s important that we play our part in supporting both the local and global sustainability agenda. This is something that all businesses should play a part in regardless of their size and focus. At the Southern Co-op, we have recently published our new five year plan - Our Plan 2019-2023 - which talks about our business priorities and provides details about our future sustainability commitments. This includes referring to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals within our Sustainability Plan which seek to address the world’s biggest challenges and are a universal call to action to end poverty, protect the planet and ensure that all people enjoy peace and prosperity.

By acting responsibly and encouraging others to do the same, we can support communities and the environment giving society and the planet a chance to sustain itself and thrive regionally, nationally and globally.

Tell us what you mean by ‘Responsible South’?

‘Responsible South’ is the name we attach to the idea that this region can become known as a centre of this new way of doing business. If we can build clusters of companies applying responsible and sustainable business  principles then we can create opportunities for collaboration. As a consequence, it will also help to increase the supply of talent available to companies as potential employees come to recognise the region as a hot spot of values which they seek out in an employer. It is also something existing employees value and has a direct impact on retention rates.

One of my missions is to encourage as many businesses as possible across the south of England to work together to create a ‘Responsible South’. It is looking beyond our own four walls and allowing our businesses to play a part in creating vibrant communities where people flourish.

A responsible business is concerned with how it makes money, not just how it spends the profits. This means being aware of the impact of our operation on wider society and the natural world. It is important that businesses of all sizes recognise they play a part in the global agenda. Small companies can make a difference as well as larger ones just in slightly different ways. If we can each take a look at our own actions and act responsibly, then together the impact could be enormous.

What are the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals and how can businesses make them relate to their workplace?

The United Nations has set 17 separate Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) which focus on, and address, the world’s biggest challenges. These are supported by more detailed targets and measures. They are a universal call to action to end poverty, protect the planet and ensure that all people enjoy peace and prosperity - pretty much every country in the world has signed up to these and its becoming more known in the UK with support from government.

We need to ensure that over time all businesses will align their way of operating and future plans with these goals. The really important point though is that action should be focused where it is most relevant. It is very unlikely that a company (other than the very largest) would target more than three or four of the goals. For most companies, by choosing things that are relevant to their industry and size, and collaborating together with other businesses, it will make a real difference.

As CEO of Southern Co-op, what responsible businesses initiatives have you embedded within the corporation?

We regularly have a whole host of initiatives which we are working on that come under the umbrella of being a ‘responsible’ business. A lot of these are specific to our sector but others could be replicated in smaller businesses across the region. Focusing on regional, environment, community and people, we hope that some of the ideas below will provide inspiration for others.

In regards to regional, we are a proud supporter of our local food and drink producers. It is incredibly important to support our local economy and small businesses in particular and one of the ways we do that is through our Local Flavours range which currently stocks products from more than 200 local producers. The range takes in everything from bakers and brewers to ice cream and eggs.

When looking at protecting the environment, we have made a commitment to reducing our absolute CO2 emissions by 20% by 2022 (against 2017 baseline). We have also been working to reduce the amount of waste in our stores and improve our waste management processes, as well as working with our suppliers on reducing plastic in our supply chain.

On top of this, our funeral colleagues have been making a noticeable impact on our surrounding environment. We have been working with the local Wildlife Trusts to enhance the natural environment at our crematoria and burial ground. This has included habitat management plans and monitoring the benefits to wildlife and habitats and how we can enhance these. By doing this, we have been able to make a real improvement to biodiversity and this year we were delighted with a rather special sighting of a soprano pipistrelle bat using one of our boxes.

Making a noticeable impact also stretches into our commitment to the local community. We work hard to inspire all our colleagues to be community minded every day. We do this through our Love Your Neighbourhood programme which aims to promote ‘Greener’, ‘Healthier’, ‘Safer’, and ‘More Inclusive’ neighbourhoods. The difference this has made can be seen in so many different ways such as funding accessible bikes in Worthing, rubbish clean-ups across our beaches, replacing nursery equipment on the Isle of Wight and assisting communities to have better access to life-saving defibrillators.

Obviously we couldn’t do any of the above without our colleagues which is why it is also important that our responsible business goals extend to their wellbeing. We are committed to develop a culture where colleague wellbeing threads through everything we do. Our HR team has been developing this area and we now have many ways our colleagues can get support including access to an Employee Assistance Programme, additional mental health awareness training for managers, sick pay policies and also access to support through our own bereavement team. We are also currently investing in mental health first aid training for our colleagues. This has started with the leadership team and will gradually roll out to all managers so more and more of our colleagues can recognise the signs of someone who may need support.

 How can Champions of Business South get involved?

In October we canvassed the idea of businesses supporting some form of Responsible South initiative at a business leaders breakfast. Steve Kenzie, Executive Director of the United Nations Global Compact Network UK, demonstrated how simple activities could align with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals and Justine Taylor-Knightbridge spoke about the Community Involvement toolkit that the Workforce South group had prepared. Reactions to the idea of Responsible South were really positive and we are looking at putting some activities in place – even simply sharing ideas and best practice to the regional Champion network would be beneficial to help inspire others.

We are kicking off the initiative in the New Year and I encourage all Champions to collaborate wherever possible.

Any Champion’s interested in being involved should contact Anna

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