Co-operators CEO challenges corporate Canada to ramp up coordinated response to climate crisis

Photo by Britney Townsend

Once a year, Canada’s top corporate citizens gather for the Corporate Knights gala in Toronto. Last week, the CEO of The Co-operators rose to receive our 2019 Best Corporate Citizen award and challenged those in the room to use their collective influence to take on the climate crisis. Here is an excerpt from his speech.

Good evening, everyone. I am honoured to stand before all of you today to receive this recognition on behalf of The Co-operators and our stakeholders. I am joined tonight by many people who work hard everyday to contribute to this achievement.

In a room surrounded by peers and business leaders who are all contributing to a common goal of building a more sustainable and resilient Canadian and global society, this moment feels particularly poignant.

I’d like to begin by giving you some insight into the history of our co-operative organization, because today’s achievement finds its origins in our roots.

In 1945, a group of farmers, credit union leaders and social pioneers pooled their resources and ingenuity to build a co-operative that would meet the ill met and unmet insurance needs of their members, families, and communities.

Today, although the world around us has changed significantly, and our co-operative has expanded, the same co-operative purpose guides us.

We still exist to provide financial security for Canadians and their communities.

The complex issues we face compel us to take a longer-term view of success – not just for our own organizations, but for our clients, communities and the planet.

This purpose is perhaps even more relevant today than it was almost 75 years ago. The embedment of sustainability into our strategy, decision-making and day-to-day operations is simply the manifestation of our cooperative purpose.

If we are to succeed in our mission to provide financial security for Canadians and Canadian communities, then we must account for the interconnected economic, social and environmental issues that put their security at risk. Doing so is not just the right thing to do … it is also good business. And it’s good business for all of us, since their risks are our risks.

The challenges of the future will be greater than the challenges of the past. The complex issues we face require holistic, collaborative and imaginative solutions. They compel us to take a longer-term view of success – not just for our own organizations, but for our clients, communities and the planet.

We have all been recognized for our leadership in environmental, social and financial responsibility. The sobering truth is that our clients and our communities need us to do much, much more.

And this is my call to action. Let’s challenge each other. I think all of us here are fans of some healthy competition.

Climate change is the defining issue of our times and it poises key intergenerational challenges. It requires an “all hands on deck” mentality. And yet, here in Canada, we have a polarized environment with regards to climate change. This polarization makes it difficult for healthy dialogue and action.

As business leaders, we have an opportunity to transcend this and pull our collective weight.

In this room, are companies with great influence. Imagine if we coordinated to help implement a robust and low-carbon economy. Initiatives like the Expert Panel on Sustainable Finance rely on Canadian Financial Institutions to lead the way in a smart transition to a low-carbon economy. I hope you’ll join us in these discussions, and adopt the recommendations of the Expert Panel’s report.

In this room, are companies with great influence. Imagine if we coordinated to help implement a robust and low-carbon economy.

In this room, are companies that collectively manage hundreds of billions of dollars in assets. Imagine the positive change we could drive if each of our organizations committed to impact investments. Today, The Co-operators has invested 13% of our assets in externally verified impact investments — over $1.2 billion. We are committed to reaching 20% by 2022. And 20% is not enough. It is simply a marker along the way, and I challenge us to work toward an aspirational goal of 100% in the long term. The financial returns are market competitive, and these investments are having a measurable environmental or social impact. In essence, the positive externalities are free.

In this room, are organizations who collectively serve tens of millions of Canadians. Imagine the impact we could have if our products and services were designed to help build more resilient and sustainable communities, to inform and equip Canadians to live more sustainable lives. Currently 11% of The Co-operators products have sustainability or resiliency in mind. Again, 11% is not enough and we are committed to doing better.

Together, we can catalyze the transition to a low-carbon economy. We can invest for positive impact. We can design our products and services to enable sustainable, resilient choices, and shift behaviours.

Along the way, we can partner across sectors and stay coordinated, working towards a shared goal of a sustainable future.

Thank you.

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