It is officially the International Year of Co-operatives, declared by the United Nations. Ban Ki-moon is being widely requoted saying: “Co-operatives are a reminder to the international community that it is possible to pursue both economic viability and social responsibility.”
At the Oxford Real Farming Conference at the end of last week, it was frequently lamented that under the current economic system it is hard to see ways forward in which we can make agriculture fair and environmentally responsible, despite the heroic efforts of many farmers we were privileged enough to meet there. It’s not just farming – the systemic pressures that squeeze prices and externalise the environmental and social costs of economic activity are endemic. Responses range from despair to passivity to revolution. But co-operatives seem to me to offer considerable hope that we can create significant change for the better even under an economic system that remains fundamentally the same. How different would the world look if the big four supermarkets were also co-operatives, if some of our biggest corporations were co-operatives, or our banks? We know it can be done – look at Mondragon in Spain, with 83,000 employees, the Co-operative Bank in New Zealand or the Biocoop federation of food shops in France. In the UK there are many great examples, of which the Co-operative supermarkets, bank and other businesses are just the largest. We know that business can create both economic and social value. It’s a different kind of business.
Something interesting I learnt a few days ago about the logo for the International Year of Co-operatives. the seven figures holding up ‘the goals and aspirations upon which co-operative enterprises are built’ represent the seven principles of the co-operative movement, which are: voluntary and open membership, democratic member control, member economic participation, autonomy and independence, education, training, and information, cooperation among cooperatives, and concern for community.
I hope we’ll have a lot more blog postings here about co-operatives. Keep an eye on stories.coop