Coop is the second largest retail group in Switzerland, with 1,500 stores and a staff of 45,000 selling everything from food to clothes. But in the market for environmentally friendly and fair trade products, the company has few rivals – in the world.
Since the 1990s Coop has developed projects for the humane treatment of livestock, support for the protection of rare-breed farm animals, care for the environment, organic cotton production, and the making of food and clothing in the Swiss mountains. It’s a formula that customers have warmly welcomed and which has been achieved without making them feel as though they are being lectured or charged unreasonable prices.
Now Coop is going further and introducing new environmental standards for the design of its stores. The first shop that showcases these new ecological standards has just opened in Schönenwerd, near Zürich.
The man responsible for pioneering the company’s promotion of provenance and sustainability is Jürg Peritz, head of marketing and purchasing. He visited Monocle’s Zürich HQ to tell us about selling Swissness and why it’s time to let the daylight in.
Monocle:What makes Coop special in the competitive Swiss market?
Jürg Peritz: Our proposition is based on quality. We have, I think, the widest assortment in the country and our main position is, of course, the sustainable assortments that we have. We carry 15 brands that are focused on sustainability which we have built up since the 1990s.
M:When you started labelling products for sustainability, was it solely a marketing idea or was it driven by wanting to support local commerce?
JP: The beginning was in the 1990s when we were thinking, “What will be the future?” And we thought the customers will become increasingly interested in where products came from. Who produced them? Was it organic production or normal? Was it made in China or the Swiss mountains? And that’s where we began to develop Naturaplan, our brand for organic food production, and Naturaline for biotech cotton production.
M:It’s interesting you mention the point about production being in China or the Swiss mountains. Going through your stores, it seems it is a bit of both. Do you really produce in the mountains?
JP: We started one year ago with a line called Pro Montagna, so all these products – not just the raw materials – are from the mountains. And we try to keep the working places up in the mountains so we can give these people an opportunity to stay there and not to relocate to our cities.
M:What kind of products are included?
JP: We are talking about noodles, bread, wine, milk, yoghurts and also any kind of cheese. Really quite a big variety. We even started with toys made out of wood from up in the mountains.
M:Where did this idea about making things in the mountains come from?
JP: I think it has something to do with our cooperative society. We are not a short-term company that has to look at the position of the stock markets every quarter. We have a long-term vision. Because we are a cooperative society we have more possibilities to build something up, and, I think, to know what the customers want.
M:And is that what customers are saying?
JP: Yes. This is a really important dialogue. They are asking more and more for organic production; for production that comes out of Switzerland, and Swissness is very important. They want to be sure about the quality they get. And that is why we care a lot about transparency in the products that we import by air – because we have to do it – bananas, for example. We have our “by air” sticker on all these products to show our customers and then they can make their selection. And if they want to have these bananas, they know that for more than a year now we have compensated all the carbon dioxide costs that we have [incurred] with these imports.
M:Usually, textile products will be made in Vietnam, Thailand or the most eastern edges of Europe. But you have garments that are actually made in Switzerland.
JP: It’s important. Textile production has left the country. Switzerland is not known for textile production, but, for example, with our Coutura line – organic cotton – we have a manufacturer in Switzerland, 45 minutes from Zürich. It’s called Traxler and is producing all our organic knitwear. It’s doing a tremendous job and I think this shows that if you have a chain of production where you know who is producing for you then this gives you great opportunities and a process in which cost is not that high.
M:Does your sustainability extend to the architecture of your stores?
JP: Yes, we have a strong focus on energy efficiency. We just started with one store in Schönenwerd that was built on the Minergie Standard and this will be the future standard for all our stores.
M:What is the Minergie Standard?
JP: We get the heat out of the planet. You drill down into the earth and I think around 30m to 40m down you get the heat out of the earth’s core. Costs are higher – this is clear – but our calculations show that within three years we get the money back, so already within three years we will have earned this amount.
M:Tell us a little bit about the new store – walking through the space, what are some of the really interesting features from a sustainability perspective?
JP: I think one of the important points is to have a lot of daylight in the store. I think this is quite an important element because you never know, if you look into the future, how long we will have enough electricity to have just synthetic light in the store. And we also think from the point of view of how to present the goods; daylight gives a much more attractive atmosphere to [display] your stock. You have very good visual merchandising with daylight and also you have a very good position regarding sustainability and energy consumption. This gives you a much better result at the end of the day.
1947 Born in Zürich. Goes to school in Basel.
1967 Gains diploma in economics from Basel School of Economics. Works for Feldpausch department store as a fashion buyer.
1976 Following stints in Bloomingdale’s in New York and at Peter Robinson in London, he joins Jelmoli department store in Switzerland as a fashion buyer.
1990 Starts at Coop in Wangen in charge of clothes and accessories.
2001 Moves to Coop in Basel and works as head of retail management.
2004 Joins Coop’s executive committee.