The Co-operative Group’s commercial director for food has said the UK retailer faces a “huge challenge” as it looks to implement a series of new corporate and social responsibility commitments.

Speaking to just-food at the launch of the new targets, Sean Toal said the group faces a “huge challenge ahead” but that it has already started working to fulfil the commitments that span global poverty, animal welfare, social fairness, health and community enterprise.

Toal said last night (17 February) that the member-led values and principles committees around the country, which help to decide the group’s strategy, all fed in their opinions of what The Co-op should consider as part of its corporate social responsibility guidelines and the announcements are “what our members want”.

Speaking in front of a room full of NGOs and other corporate social responsibility groups, The Co-op’s CEO Peter Marks described the new plan as “revolutionary” and said that the company was committed to making these changes despite being in the midst of recession.

“People in Africa and India don’t stop being hungry. Climate change doesn’t stop until the economy improves. There is no bigger responsibility than being good corporate citizens. If we don’t consider the future our kids and grand kids will not have one,” he said.

The Co-op, which distributes at least 40% of its profits to its more than six million members each year, is looking to change the way companies operate. “The way businesses behave matters. Decisions in boardrooms matter,” said Marks.

The Co-op wants the targets to be a central part of its ethos, with Marks emphasising that “if a commercial decision doesn’t fit with our ethics, then it won’t be made.”

He added: “We’re establishing a lead in this area and we want others to follow – we can’t do this alone.”

Environmentalist Jonathon Porrit echoed Marks’ statements, calling for a change in the way return on capital employed mean more than profit and that companies need to consider the “different kinds of capital generated” – including social and environmental capital.

One of the key elements of The Co-op’s plan, Marks said, is the retailer’s “if it can be Fairtrade, it will be Fairtrade” commitment, with some 90% of the Co-op’s primary commodities to be Fairtrade-certified by 2013.

Harriet Lamb, The Fairtrade Foundation’s executive director, described the rise in popularity of Fairtrade as a “quiet revolution in the way we shop”. She said: “Consumers are beginning to flex their muscles to change the way their food is made”.