What makes a sustainability leader? Meet the Co-op’s Cathryn Higgs

With the 2021 Sustainability Leaders Awards entry deadline approaching, this new feature series showcases the achievements of the 2020 winners and reveals their secrets to success. Up next: Our Sustainability Leader of the Year 2020, the Co-op's head of food policy Cathryn Higgs.

What makes a sustainability leader? Meet the Co-op’s Cathryn Higgs

Cathryn joined the Co-op in the 1990s as a scientific advisor

Cathryn has worked for the Co-op for more than 20 years and her colleagues have credited her with driving transformational change within the business’ operations and across its value chain. She is also renowned for her work in the wider food and retail industries, with a passion for bringing others along on the journey.

As a member-owned business founded with purpose at its core, the Co-op’s stance on – and action around– social and environmental issues is never far from the headlines.  Cathryn’s colleagues have praised her for providing a long-term vision and aligning the business with its every facet with unwavering determination. Her remit stretches across a myriad of sustainability issues, from emissions, waste, energy and packaging, to nutrition and sustainable sourcing.

Under Cathryn, the Co-op met its previous emissions targets three years ahead of schedule, paving the way for a commitment to halve emissions by 2025 and reach net-zero before 2050. The firm has also met or exceeded its recent targets around packaging recyclability, food waste, Fairtrade and charitable giving under Cathryn’s leadership. Progress in these areas and beyond created a firm foundation on which the Co-op could launch its 2030 sustainability agenda, “Future of Food”. The SDG and Paris-aligned strategy contains several sector-leading pledges, including commitments to physically source 100% deforestation-free soy by 2025 and reduce the emissions footprint of products by 11% by 2025.

Crucially, Cathryn’s dedication has ensured that the strategy is being embedded across all areas of the business. It has received support beyond the CSR and policy teams from departments including commercial, marketing, digital and community. Future of Food, Cathryn’s colleagues told edie, was not created in a vacuum. Instead, Cathryn and her team worked tirelessly to develop targets and supporting action plans in collaboration with suppliers, the Science-Based Targets initiative, the UN and other external organisations. This method is consistent with Cathryn’s wider approach; she regularly takes trips to visit suppliers in person, to better understand the challenges they

face and how the Co-op could help turn them into opportunities. She is also an active member of the Food Ethics Council and the Fairtrade Council, participating in these bodies’ events not only to improve the Co-op’s work but to drive wider industry progress. Cathryn’s thirst for collaboration and her depth of industry expertise saw the Department for Food, the Environment and Rural Affairs (Defra) invite her to play a key part in its research to develop the National Food Strategy.

As well as leading the firm’s strategic sustainability work, Cathryn has developed several of its best-received customer-facing awareness campaigns and community initiatives around topics such as sustainable sourcing and creating a circular economy for packaging.

On the latter, Cathryn was instrumental in the development of the Co-op’s “Action on Plastics” plan. The Co-op has not joined a business coalition on plastics. Guided by her team, Cathryn achieved buy-in for a 2023 target for all packaging to be recyclable. This has since been moved forward to 2020. Action on Plastics has also seen Co-op introduce compostable carrier bags to all stores, in a first for the UK supermarket sector and in the space of less than 24 months. The bags were only introduced after extensive collaboration with central Government and local authorities, to ensure systems to enable responsible disposal were in place. In the first week of this work alone, six local councils pledged to introduce food waste collections and encourage residents to use compostable bags, like the Co-op’s, to line their caddies.

A business like the Co-op will, of course, be subjected to high levels of scrutiny around its sustainability leadership. With Cathryn at the helm, the business has risen to an array of internal challenges across the areas of people, planet and profit and repeatedly demonstrated its ability to drive change across the wider food and drink sector. Colleagues describe Cathryn as an embodiment of the business’s moral compass, capable of delivering engaging and impactful campaigns across all areas of sustainable development.

What edie’s judges said: “Cathryn has made a significant contribution to Co-op’s sustainability work, driving projects across an array of areas, all with measurable impacts and tangible outcomes.”

Are you our next winner?

Now entering their 14th year for 2021, the RSA-accredited Sustainability Leaders Awards are a unique opportunity to shout about the achievements you and your company have made during this challenging year. 

In a digital event on 3 February 2021, entrants will get the chance to celebrate virtually with leaders from across the sustainability, CSR and energy space. Some exciting new categories have been added for 2021 to recognise excellence across the spectrum of sustainable business. 

The 2021 Sustainability Leaders are now OPEN for entries. The entry deadline is Friday 30 October 2020, so don’t miss your chance to get the recognition you deserve. If you more time to enter, please register your intent to enter and you’ll get an extension to Friday 6 November. 

The Awards will then take place virtually on the night of Wednesday 3 February 2021.


edie Staff

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