Sustainable design, sustainable agriculture, sustainable energy: all fairly familiar concepts these days. But what about sustainable insurance? The Co-operators Group, a Canadian-owned insurance and financial services organization, is at the forefront of bringing the principles of sustainability to financial products.

“There is so much dialogue about sustainability around the globe,” explains Kathy Bardswick, the President and CEO of the group, a third-tier cooperative whose member-owners include cooperative organizations and credit union centrals. “But cooperatives have the capacity in their DNA, in a bone-deep way, to truly, truly deliver organizations and entities and systems that reflect the principles of sustainability in relation to social, economic and environmental impact.”

Sustainability, defined as “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs,” (Bruntland Commission, 1987) has been an essential element of how The Co-operators Group operates since 2005, and its first Sustainability Strategy was drawn up in 2008. In 2012, The Co-operators was a founding signatory of the UN-backed Principles for Sustainable Insurance, the first and only insurer in North America to sign onto these principles, which “provide a framework for insurance companies to better manage environmental, social and governance risks and opportunities in their core business strategies and operations”.

With the Enviroguard coverage for homes, owners can choose to replace damaged property with more eco-friendly and sustainable products. Drivers with hybrid cars receive an automatic 5% discount on their premiums. Claims adjusters work with vendors and clients to try to find environmental solutions for repairs, such as paintless dent repair for cars or products that mean vinyl siding on houses can be repaired rather than replaced.

Apart from applying sustainability to its products and services, including through underwriting screens, something Bardswick says is not currently being done anywhere in the world, the company also has a number of targets, such as reducing its carbon emissions to zero by 2020. “And that’s a genuine zero,” says Bardswick, “not just picking a few metrics and saying we’ve fixed it.”

A founding member of the Corporate Knights Council for Clean Capitalism, The Co-operators also supports a number of innovative sustainability projects, like the IMPACT! Program, a youth program for sustainability leadership, building the capacity of young leaders to act strategically to address the environmental, social, and economic challenges facing their communities. “We’re working with universities to bring young people from different disciplines – biology, philosophy – who are passionate about sustainability,” says Bardswick. The students attend workshops and are given resources to help with community projects. One participant, for example, used a $5,000 grant to support her business, A.B.C. Apiaries and Bees for Communities, educating the citizens of Calgary about urban beekeeping. Another set up Water Water Everywhere in Saskatoon to supply and promote the use of tap rather than bottled water.

Bardswick said that the incredible diversity of The Co-operators Group’s membership, which includes agricultural, financial, service, retail, health and labour cooperatives, has helped The Co-operators in its mission to push sustainability. “I don’t think any other cooperative in the country is so diversified in terms of its membership,” she said. “We can take advantage of that to galvanize the system in ways that other cooperatives can’t. We’re bringing more sustainable practice to the Canadian cooperative community.”