The year of the co-op: Bucking the economic trend

Economic insecurity has put a dampener on much of the year, but as Natalie Revie finds, the co-operative business model is a beacon of hope in these austere times

It’s been a dismal few years for most sectors of the economy, with the much talked about double-dip recession becoming an unpleasant reality and a triple-dip potentially looming. But there is one notable exception: the co-operative sector.

In the face of a shrinking economy, co-operative businesses have pulled off a remarkable tour de force, growing by 19.5% since 2008 and turning over £35.6bn this year – a year dubbed the International Year of Co-operatives by the United Nations.

For people faced with hard financial times, co-operative businesses offer a chance to wrestle back control of their lives from the institutions they feel have let them down, and ensure that businesses, money and spending have a positive impact. Within co-operatives, people act together to meet the common needs and aspirations of all its members, sharing ownership and making decisions democratically. The first co-operative shop opened in 1844 and today there are 39 retail co-operatives in the UK, ranging from single shop operations to huge companies with turnovers of £5 billion.

Nowadays, as the realities of decades of consumption become ever more visible, co-operatives have come to mean more than just shared ownership to many people: they offer the chance to create an economy that considers society and the environment to be just as important as the pursuit of profit. Their ethical operating methods have huge appeal for people tired of the dominance of corporations geared to place profit above all else. In a recent survey, 79% of co-operatives were believed to act fairly according to UK shoppers, compared to 18% of businesses at large.

Karuna Clayton is just one of the 13.5 million co-operative members in the UK. She describes her reasons for joining the movement: “I want to know who’s profiting from my money, I want to be part of the change I want to see in the world, and I want to feel empowered that my monetary choices are effecting real change.”

But Co-operatives UK, the movement’s trade association, says the co-operative model can do far more than that – they believe it’s the answer to the country’s current economic problems. In their recent report on alternatives to austerity, secretary general Ed Mayo said: “Our economy needs a new engine and a fundamental change of course based on principles such as widening ownership, sharing profits and encouraging long-term, sustainable enterprise.”

The leading lights of the UK’s co-operative economy are making sure they hold themselves accountable to these fine ideals. This year, market leader the Co-operative Group invested £30 million in opportunities for young people and created 2,000 apprenticeships as part of their Inspiring Young People programme. CEO Peter Marks is himself a testament to the power of the Co-operative Group’s commitment to its youth: he began as a shelf stacker in one of the company’s stores four decades ago.

Forty years on, he accepted the Queen’s Award for Enterprise 2012 on behalf of the organisation, saying: “We do these things not because we think it will give us some short-term marketing advantage, not because we think it will look good in our annual report, not because it will give shareholders a warm glow of self-satisfaction – we do these things because of who we are and because of what we are. This award is recognition of our co-operative model of doing business.”

The number of co-operative businesses in the UK continues to grow apace, increasing by almost a quarter between 2007 and 2011. There are now more than 5,900 co-operative organisations across a range of industries, including energy, education, manufacturing, housing, building, retail, farming, tourism and fishing.

In November 2012, the global festival and expo Co-operatives United drew to a close in Manchester – the birthplace of the global co-operative movement. With more than 10,000 attendees, the event truly marked the end of the Year of the Co-operative, and brought together organisations from more than 90 countries to share their ideas, experience and vision for the future.

This business model has put profits back into people and communities, shone new light on youth engagement, education and sustainability, and above all has proven that economic progress is possible in these hard times.

Read it and don’t weep.

Headlines about what’s going right in the world are now being shared with millions of people through digital screens on high streets and in shopping centres all around the UK.