Cathryn Higgs talking to Rachel Machin

Our Head of Food Policy Cathryn celebrates 20 years at the Co-op this year. In that time she’s seen six chief executives at the top, a handful of rebrands, and near collapse. Yet through all the ups and downs, our (and her) ethical commitment and belief in a different way of doing business has never wavered. She chats to Rachel Machin about Fairtrade, supply chains and how a certain radio programme has been her constant for the last two decades.

It’s 5.45am and Food critic Jay Rayner is talking food production post-Brexit on Radio 4’s Farming Today programme. Holding her cup of early morning coffee in one hand and mobile in the other, Cathryn Higgs is listening intently.

It’s a familiar routine and one that started when she moved from Group to Food in 2005. She explains why: “I’d get a phone call, an email or a tap on the shoulder from the chief executive of Food at the time, Guy McCracken. He’d say: ‘I’ve heard this today, what are we doing about it?’ “I thought I’d better start listening to this so I’m prepared!”

Cathryn leads a team of people who make sure Co-op Food acts in a way that we can feel proud of: developing policies and standards so that the products we produce and the way we act is as ethical as it can be.

Five minutes into our conversation and there’s absolutely no doubt in my mind that she’s as committed to the cause as she was the first time she walked through the stiff revolving doors of New Century House in Manchester all those years ago.

So why has she stayed all these years? “I genuinely feel that every day for me is different. I touch so many different issues. I’m constantly being stretched by the external challenges that are thrown up. It’s just constant change and I love change. I need that stretch and this role gives me that,” she says.

“I feel quite protective about the organisation and the things we stand for. I like to feel that having someone involved who’s been here a length of time is quite helpful. Actually, having a good memory is important in this role – being able to look back and say: ‘The reason we did that was…”

Good with food

Cathryn is one of those lucky people [or do you make your own luck?] who’s found a job that is also her passion. Her scientific background as a micro biologist (and a law graduate) has shaped her inquisitive outlook on food.

It also helps that she’s a self-confessed foodie, consuming every newspaper article and online feature while cooking up a storm in her own kitchen and munching her way through her fair share of produce (which obviously has to be sustainable and ethically sourced!).

“Being first is important but it’s not as easy anymore”

There’s a list of ‘firsts’ Cathryn can reel off spanning decades. The Co-op were the first to use nutritional labelling on all our products, first to use braille on packaging, first to sell Fairtrade, the first to commit to making all our packaging recyclable…the list goes on.

And in May this year we made the headlines again when we became the first retailer to use Fairtrade cocoa in every single product, including the “brown bit on our own-brand liquorice allsorts!” according to Cathryn.

“That was an amazing and proud moment for our team,” she smiles. “That and our visit to Malawi to experience first-hand the transformational impact on communities of the work we’ve done with the One Foundation through the sale of our Fairbourne Springs water. That was such a privilege.”

But Cathryn knows that people’s memories fade fast. “We shout about it when we’ve done it,” she says. “But we forget that shoppers are changing and people need reminding about what we’ve done and the change agents we’ve been. There’s something to be said for constantly calling it out.”

Working closely with Group Policy and Campaigns Director, Paul Gerrard, Cathryn’s team is making sure there is a constant conversation around the great things we’re doing, not just in Food.

Open and transparent

Digital is certainly the way to keep having that conversation, says Cathryn. “It’s been good to explain to the Digital team that 20 years ago we had a policy that was called ‘Right to know’ which was absolutely about telling people the facts about the products they buy and how we operate as a business. It came from a desire to be open and honest about what you’re buying and in many ways prompted the trend now towards radical transparency.

“It’s a slicker space, it’s more accessible but the ethos behind Digital is the same as our ethos 20 years ago. They’re challenging the business to think a different way.”

Supporting our suppliers

Conversations with the supply chain are also important.

In March, Cathryn’s team launched a collaborative platform for our suppliers to share information.

“We’re looking at how we can bring our suppliers together to share best practice .We’re trying to upskill them so they can deal with the issues like modern slavery,” she adds.

Supply chains also feature heavily in her plans for our Renew phase. “We’re exploring how our business can continue to trade in the future offering the same great products but recognising there’ll be challenges in terms of supply.

“How do we get closer to our supply chain? How do we secure supply and make it more sustainable?” she asks.

Questions, questions, questions. I’ve already realised Cathryn’s insatiable appetite to answer them is the thing that drives her. But does she ever get tired?

“I do go to bed quite early but what keeps me awake is that I’m always thinking seven steps ahead. “Years ago there were subject matter experts in Fairtrade, sustainability. Now the real challenging bit is where these issues intersect. That’s the bit that keeps me awake,” she laughs.

Quick-fire questions

Favourite Co-op own brand product: The Irresistible Sea Salt Ghanaian Chocolate is to die for.

In three words, Co-op culture you’d like to see: Collaborative. Honest. Proud.

Top priority in the next couple of years: Developing my team.

One bit of advice you’d give to fellow leaders: Listen to what your team are saying: they’ve probably got the answers.

Most difficult moment: I consign all the bad stuff to the bin.

Proudest moment: Seeing the impact of Co-op’s work with One Foundation in Malawi.

Three words that best describe you: Driven. Passionate. Optimistic.

Happiness is: Lots of food. Good coffee. A good pair of shoes. Being part of a business that’s got real direction.

Personal ambitions: Stop being so busy. Be comfortable just being.