Coops and the World Cup – Viel Erfolg! Succes! Boa Sorte! Buena Suerte! Bonne Chance!

The countries left in the World Cup are ones by coincidence all that we have had contact with over recent years, having something special and co-operative going on domestically.

And in that spirit, Fred Bosch, chief executive of Coop Netherlands, has sent us over a note on how he reconciles co-operation with the competitive demands ahead in football and in retail.

“This year’s International Day of the Cooperatives coincides with the quarterfinals of the World Cup in Brazil.

Coincidental, but meaningful! There are quite some similarities between the World Cup football teams and cooperatives. More specific: between the Dutch football team & Coop Supermarkets in the Netherlands. It goes far beyond the nation’s color that we both share: Orange.

As with football, it’s all about collaborating when playing the game the cooperative way. Based on true cooperative principles like fair play, we need to do things together, with a great team spirit. This way, we can score, achieve goals and finally: win!

Just like the Dutch Football team in the World Cup, Coop plays on high level within the highly competitive supermarket industry in the Netherlands. And, just like the Orange team, as we call our Dutchies in the World Cup, we have a very clear and sound vision: Together, we would like to be the best! The Coop Orange team says: ‘Let’s go for it!’ We will join forces and offer our customer members an amazing Coop Supermarkt experience. It’s all about great experiences, like our football team showed when impressively beating Spain in their first round opening match in Salvador, Brazil. We are truly proud of our national football team and their dedication in delivering value. And, while we celebrate the Cooperatives’ International Day for which we wish every consumer cooperative all the best, we now also celebrate our support to our nation’s football team in all our stores with special “Orange” offers with great enthusiasm.

As for Saturday July 5th, it is time to let the Orange team show what they are really made of! We would like to wish all teams good luck, or, in domestic language of all the quarter finalists: Viel Erfolg! Succes! Boa Sorte! Buena Suerte! Bonne Chance!

Enjoy the game, like we do when playing our own, cooperatively. May the best team win. But clearly, we wish our Orange team the most of luck: “Go get them all, team. All the way up to the World Title!”

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Out of Italy (and into Wales) comes a new strategy for social care – ‘with and for’

The social care sector, catering for the most vulnerable people in society, has been hit hard by austerity measures.

Social care costs account for one third to one half of local government core budgets and the squeeze on funding has meant that low pay has become endemic to the model of state care, as it has been among private sector contractors. In the home care sector, eight out of ten workers are on zero-hour contracts.

The demand for social care, though, is increasing, leading to an interest in hybrid models of mutual care, self payment and state support. Drawing on the work of around seventy mutual pioneers in the social care field, we launched yesterday in Cardiff a new strategy for the sector, which explores the potential for a radical new model of social care, drawing on innovation from Italy.

The ‘social cooperative‘ model turns the users of social care into partners, alongside the workforce, with both given an ownership stake in the business and a share in its success. It is an approach of services delivered ‘with and for’ care users and carers.

There is now a social co-operative in every town in Italy, with a labour force of 360,000 – greater than the total number employed by private sector residential care providers across the UK.

In Wales, a network of champions has been formed to spread the social co-operative model, following a national report earlier in the year on the importance and potential for co-operative and mutual enterprise for the Wales economy. In that report, the Co-operatives and Mutuals Commission said: ‘the Commission considers that there is a compelling case for a greater role for social care co-operatives because of the added value they can bring to social care services, including: High-quality services that are based on co-operative values and principles and not on private profit; Services that are responsive to people’s needs, as they are citizen directed, giving a much stronger voice and greater control to service users and carers; Greater contestability in a market dominated by large, private providers.’

Disability Wales, for example, is developing a model for a co-operative of direct payment users, challenging the idea that services have to be managed either by the individual consumer or by the municipal state.

The social co-operative model should not be seen as a rival to wider social enterprise, voluntary sector or public social care agencies. Rather it offers a way to upgrade what they do, by building the idea of partnership, or co-production, into the governance of the organisation.

The strategy launched by Co-operatives UK in association with the Wales Co-operative Centre, and written by Pat Conaty, marks I hope a clear statement of intent to develop a new market of quality care – a market which is with and for vulnerable people.

Co-operation: how?

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We are running our Co-operative Congress this weekend in the heart of Birmingham – 270 people coming together to look at where next for co-operation and mutuality. The theme is ‘co-operation: how?’

There is, as ever, a great starting point in the story of the Rochdale Equitable Pioneers Society, who in 1877, published this considered ‘Advice to Members’, including guidance that:

“Let integrity, intelligence and ability be indispensible qualifications in the choice of officers and managers, and not wealth or distinction.”

“Choose those only for your leaders whom you can trust, and then give them your confidence”

“Let committees of management always have the authority of the members before taking any important or expensive step.”

It is co-operative business advice that still stands strong.

One million co-operative strawberries

As a Wimbledon-born boy, I am excited that it is tennis time again and time again for… strawberries.

One million strawberries will be eaten over the course of the two weeks at Wimbledon, all from Kent’s Hugh Lowe Farms, a member of the soft fruit co-operative, KG Growers.

It is busy too across the co-operative sector, as the number of co-ops across the UK has leaped over the last year to over 6,300, with a total turnover of over £37 billion.

Our annual statistical digest of the sector, The Co-operative Economy, is out today, as part of Co-operatives Fortnight. It tells the story too of other member-owned businesses, including how English mustard growers came together as a co-op, to save the provenance of Colman’s English Mustard.

All this at its best is great teamwork, as with the best of the World Cup teams and with the doubles tennis we may see this fortnight.

When we get it right, co-ops can be like a north bound train – focused on member needs, co-operatives have the responsiveness, support and momentum for success. Without that clarity, and faced with the challenge of restoring The Co-operative Bank back to health, The Co-operative Group has indeed faltered.

While co-operatives are not immune to the stresses and strains faced by any business, the data shows that it is still an expanding sector, made up of resilient, ambitious and profitable enterprises.

Strawberries and cream – some things are wonderful when they go together.

The greatest hits of the Co-operative Group as an ethical retailer

It has been an awful year for the Co-operative Group. But alongside the sorry saga of conflict and confusion, it is worth remembering that the business has been a wonderful innovator for some time in one field, of ethical retail.

These are what I would pick out as the five greatest hits of the Co-operative Group as an ethical retailer.

1. The pioneer of ethical certification: from Fairtade to Freedom Foods to Leaping Bunny – the Co-operative Group has helped to develop the standards for success with green and ethical products.

2. A leader in sustainability reporting – alongside international co-operatives such as VanCity Credit Union, the Co-operative Group for years won global accolades for openness and transparency. This was a form of governance and accountability that was never found wanting.

3. A carbon cutter. Working in a collaborative way with other businesses to share learning, the Co-operative Group fully deserved its reputation as a sustainability leader – with reductions in operation GHG emissions down over 40% since 2007, saving over £100m. Over the last decade, the Co-operative Group has also become one of the world’s largest purchasers of renewable energy, backing new renewable energy co-ops and the substantive policy changes in support of them that Co-operatives UK and partners have won.

4. A campaigner. The advocacy work of the Co-operative Group, with members and typically in partnership with others, is now echoed by mainstream companies such as Unilever, Aviva and IKEA. A great example was the groundbreaking work of Plan Bee in 2009, which highlighted the impact of neonic pesticides on pollinators, that in turn is now the subject of a temporary EU ban.

5. An inclusive company. One of the most underrated aspect of the Co-operative Group’s ethical work was to engage all classes in radical change. When I was comparing the health record of retailers at the National Consumer Council years ago, what stood out was that the Co-operative Group was the one who was taking healthy eating beyond the middle classes. When it was first to convert all own brand hot beverages to Fairtrade, the first to remove artificial colourings of concern and MSG from own brand products or to use free-range eggs, it did it for all stores rather than just the better off areas.

Now, these will change, not just because the Co-operative itself is resetting its purpose and priorities but also because ethical demands change over time. My hope is that the focus is on the challenge of sustainable retail as a commercial opportunity and a source of innovation.

Yes, sometimes, there are costs in doing the right thing, for sure, and it is right to be clear and transparent on those – but the Co-operative Group is a business and therefore while people don’t expect it to behave like Friends of the Earth or RSPB, members should expect it to be entrepreneurial and innovative in pursuing sustainable business opportunities and benefits.

Looking forward, the Co-operative has remarkable untapped strengths in terms of local outlets and local community connections that have been neglected in the mimicry of the vertically integrated retail. Where, after all, is the sustainable honey? Sustainability for a retailer, in my climate-constrained world, needs to be about aspiration and innovation.

The Co-operative Group has not been the only ethical pioneer in the sector either and it can learn from others. Our analysis of money flows for Lincolnshire Co-operative showed that one pound spent in a Co-op Food shop stayed for five rounds in the local economy, before the final penny stopped creating local wealth. East of England Co-op has been persistent and creative in getting to record levels of local food – fish from Lowestoft, bread from Woodbridge, pork and lamb from Bury St Edmonds, beef from Framlingham. Southern Co-operative has ensured that it is Isle of Wight milk that is sold in their stores on the island – obvious, but radically different from the big supermarkets and commercially astute.

The big gathering for the co-operative sector is coming up later this month, Co-operative Congress on Saturday June 28th, in Birmingham (and we are ten days now to the start of Co-operatives Fortnight). Over two hundred people are registered for Co-operative Congress. One of the central issues I expect will be new strategies for being competitive by being not just better all round, but by being different.

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Fairtrade comes up roses

After the media scrutiny of Fairtrade over recent days and my last blog in support, I received this warm note from Fairtrade grower, John Nevado:

“Ed – as a grower of FairTrade roses I can only thank you for this short post. I see hands-on, every day, at our farms, what good FT does. And the benefits for our co-workers are not only economic, but also dramatic in terms of worker empowerment, female empowerment in the workplace, and a general sense of cohesion at our farms that we simply would not have without the FT “glue” to hold it all together. Thanks Ed, and whenever you wish to visit an FT farm in full bloom – do pay us a visit.”

Time to pack my bags?

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Fairtrade is good for producers – what research does and doesn’t say

The halo effect of Fairtrade has lasted many years, despite periodic critics popping up wanting to complain either that it distorts markets or that it doesn’t distort them enough.

Development is a complex business and there is always a risk that Fairtrade is seen to overclaim what it can achieve as a way to tackle poverty. There is only so much you can pack into a label, or that you can unpack as a tool to address the deep inequalities of world trade. The research field on Fairtrade has grown over recent years, and played a helpful role in improving practice and standards from what its findings have been.

I remember sitting down with a colleague from Oxfam in 1991 in Brixton around the launch of the Fairtrade Mark and trying to write up standards for fair trade products. We were starting from scratch and it was extraordinarily amateur – but it was an attempt to do something no one else had done, which is to put a frame of assurance around what consumers could do to help.

Over the years, the standards have improved dramatically. They are more international, less bureaucratic. They are led and shaped by Fairtrade producers. The constructive challenge from academics and trade unions has helped to sharpen them up.

The latest research is out from the School of African and Oriental Studies and while it is useful, methodical work focused on two countries in Africa, the shame is that the findings are being used to attack Fairtrade rather than help it improve.

The news coverage – Fairtrade goods ‘not helping the poor’ – completely misses the point, at least on my reading. The research was focused on workers employed in the production of commodities. What it set largely aside was that Fairtrade started with a focus on producers – small farmers organised democratically in co-operatives, rather than those who came into harvest and labour on a paid basis. Of the two, the informal workers are no doubt poorer than farmers and there has been debate and improvements over time in terms of integrating their needs within the model – so that there is reflection of this in standards today. But this is not to say that smallholder farmers themselves are not poor.

The strength of Fairtrade is that it gives a voice to those farmers. Of course, how they choose to share the gains is something that is up for scrutiny. But a London-based university should be wary of criticising their choices if it overlooks the fact that it is exactly this power – to make choices in a democratic way – that Fairtrade offers producers and which they do not get in the mainstream supply chain.

Fairtrade is good for marginal producers. All the research bears this out. It is not necessarily good for everyone involved in the long chain from farm to fork. That is a good reason to innovate and improve, but not to overthrow the model.

I was part of the team that created the Fairtrade Mark and I have always said on fair trade and poverty that just because you can’t do everything, doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t do something.