Peter Marks, chief executive of UK retailer The Co-operative Group, yesterday (13 October) took a swipe at claims from Asda that its rival is at the forefront of “democratic consumerism”.

Two weeks ago, Asda CEO Andy Bond outlined a series of new initiatives – including webcams in factories – to make the UK’s number two retailer a “truly open, accessible and transparent business”. Asda claimed the moves would create “real customer loyalty”.

Marks told the IGD conference in London that Asda’s move was “a fantastic idea” but claimed the Co-op had got there first.

“This idea is to put consumers right at the heart of the business and to empower them to become active shareholders. I think this is a fantastic idea: it’s called the Co-op and was invented in 1844 by a group called the Rochdale Pioneers,” Marks said, citing the body seen as the basis of the modern co-operative movement in the UK.

Business could only “regain and retain the trust of our customers” by responding to their “growing ethical concerns”, Marks argued.

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The Co-op boss claimed that, in recent months, the world had seen “not just a credit crunch but a trust crunch”. He insisted that business needed to do more to address consumers’ growing “ethical concerns”.

The retailer, Marks said, had asked its “customer-members” to name the issues that “continue to be of concern to them”.

“In particular, they wanted us to focus on issues such as ethical trading, animal welfare, the impact on the environment, food quality, diet and health and community support. Despite the recession, these were still the big issues for them,” Marks said. “We’ve responded and, as a consequence, we’ve seen sales increase well ahead of the market.”

On Monday, the Co-op booked like-for-like sales growth of 7.3% during the six months to 25 July. Revenues climbed 27.1% to GBP6.4bn, while underlying group pre-tax profits reached GBP228.8m (US$365.9m) – up 17% on the year.