Fine isn’t enough and we’re still not equal – the Co-operative Women’s Challenge

Mary, bright, tall and 14, from North London tells a story about her walk back from school one afternoon.

“A few days ago, a friend and I were walking down the road, chatting away, when a man more than twice our age leaned impertinently out of his car window and wolf whistled at us. Although this is in no way uncommon, the two of us were outraged. We then had a lengthy discussion about the impertinence, the rudeness and the disrespect of so many men. So when I asked my friend the question, ‘Are you a feminist?’ I was sure I knew the answer. But to my utter astonishment, she replied, ‘No, I think women’s situation nowadays is fine’… Ask girls and women what they associate with ‘feminism’ and they will say: hairy legs, hatred of men, dungarees and not a thought to their appearance. Personally, I call myself a feminist but I have hair free legs, I hold a great interest in fashion, I certainly don’t hate men (well, not all…) and I would never be seen dead in a pair of dungarees! So does that mean I can’t be a feminist? Of course not! Why can’t females realize that fine isn’t enough and we are still not equal.”

Mary submitted this for an essay competition for The Times, under the title of ‘Why aren’t all girls feminists?’. The winner would be selected, with school friends, to edit Section 2 (T2) of The Times. To her amazement, and nervous surprise, she won and found herself on a two-day work experience trip as the editor of T2. With 11 friends from her class, this was a school trip to the citadels of fame and power.

“I was very excited” she said, “it seemed so amazing to be having my writing published in a national paper. It was a bit in this really industrial area, and the entrance was a bit fancy, but inside it was just like any big office, with paper everywhere. We decided all the content. the only things that we were made to change was the length of some pieces, and one boy was told by the school to change his piece on gang culture because it made the school look bad or something. [He had to] cut large sections.”

Mary and another girl wrote the page on fashion – something she is passionate about. The experience of seeing her words laid out on the page was wonderful and it led her to express her views on the involvement of young people in the world around them:

“I really do think young people should have more of a voice. But more importantly, I think they should want a voice. I have loads of friends who don’t give a damn about politics, because they think it doesn’t affect them, or feminism, because they don’t think its an issue, but young people, on the whole, don’t really think about these things enough to realize that they are an issue, or that they effect them in many ways. Lots and lots of things concern me, but the three that concern me most would probably be sexism, especially in religion and middle eastern countries, global warming, and poverty and the completely unfair distribution of wealth. I think as an individual, I can make small differences, that do matter, but I don’t think I can make big changes on my own.”

Even if many young people are doubtful about their influence on a big world stage (only one in eight are interested in politics) and only one in three feel influential in the local area, they do want a say. Nine out of ten children believe they can influence the decisions that affect their family and six out of ten think they can influence decisions that affect their school.

The Co-operative Women’s Challenge is an agenda across the co-operative sector to push for gender equality within coops, on elected positions, in senior staff roles, but also to campaign for women’s rights in the wider world. The history of women’s activism in the co-operative sector is long and proud, particularly through the campaigning and mobilisation of the Co-operative Women’s Guild, and we have many inspiring co-operative business leaders, men and women, committed to this campaign.

But there is still more to do. It will be young people, like Mary, that question the world around them that can inspire it to change.

First for fifty years – a new law and a new sense of purpose for co-operatives

We have the first new consolidated Co-operatives Act in the UK for nearly fifty years. With our technical input, support from across the political spectrum and preparatory work by the Law Commission, the Coalition Government has made UK a better place to start and grow co-operatives.

The landmark Co-operative and Community Benefit Societies Act (2014) which comes into force today brings together long dated overly complex legislation into one unified statute. It also wraps up a programme of legislative reform delivered by the Coalition:

  • cutting quite a bit of red tape,
  • closing down some unhelpful loopholes where coops were overlooked in relation to business benefits and
  • confirming some new gains, such as a three-fold increase in the investment limit in co-operatives.

This shows what can be achieved when broad political support is backed up by firm government action. One new co-operative starts every working day of the week and the turnover of the sector has outpaced the UK economy in recent years.

There’s still more to be done though and we have a clear agenda for what the government can still do to harness the co-operative momentum.

Of course, there is focus and learning too, coming out of what went wrong at The Co-operative Group when it lost sight of what members wanted, with structures that didn’t advance their interests. Co-operatives are businesses that are owned by and run for its members and are at their best when that co-operative difference runs through it like a stick of rock.

In that spirit, co-operatives across the UK came together recently at a congress in Birmingham, to develop an Action Plan for the co-operative sector.

We are moving now, from what has felt like a year of defence to what can now be a decade of action.

Action Plan

Fairness is the shadow of the future

I was prompted by an article by the great Kiwi Co-operator, Ramsey Margolis, on how co-ops can tackle inequality to reflect on the deep connections that exist between ideas of co-operation and of equality.

Some might say that the concept of fairness is at odds with the complexity and apparent ungovernable dynamics of modern, open economies – there is little we can do and if there is unfairness, perhaps it will work out in the long run.

Co-operatives start from a different understanding and one that increasingly chimes with new research and evidence on human behaviour and social connectedness. We can make a difference. Fairness is about habits, as much as it is about dreams. It is about everyday life, as much as what someone in government (someone else) should do. In rather more dry, theoretical terms, it is about social norms of co-operation and reciprocity.

The truth must be that we are all more likely to co-operate if we believe others will behave fairly – and we are more likely to believe others will be fair to us, if we have collaborated with them before.

The more we take a long view of time, the more we are able to make a commitment to those around us.

Fairness, therefore, is the shadow of the future.

How we developed the Co-operative Marque – a story of how coops are coming together

Today is International Coops Day – the 92nd year it has been held and the 20th sponsored by the United Nations (UN) – and the close of the 2014 UK Co-operatives Fortnight.

It seems a good day to tell the story of how we developed the Co-operative Marque. Eight months after launching it in South Africa, 740 co-operative businesses have signed up to use the Marque. Those businesses come from 70 countries.


This is going to be big.

And this is how we did it…

Co-operatives have around one billion members worldwide, but most are local or national rather than businesses that operate across borders. 2012, the UN International Year of Co-operatives, gave us a taste for coming together.

One of the ideas for follow-up, to give the International Co-operative Alliance more of profile and impact, was to develop an identity mark that was uniquely co-operative. While the image of a rainbow had been the symbol of the Alliance since 1921, it didn’t do what we wanted to achieve, which was to have something to unify the movement, that was business-like, contemporary and able to work across borders. As Chair of the Alliance Communications Committee, a small network of diverse communicators from across the world, the idea came back to me like a boomerang as we were given the mandate to lead this.

In response to our brief, sent to design agencies around the world, we had presentations from those keen to pitch for the work. The one we chose was an agency which had been working, in effect, on the same idea for many years, without the entry point to make it work. This was the UK worker co-operative, Calverts with a team led by Sion Whellens operating in partnership with Argentine designer Sebastian Guerrini and, later, BrandOutLoud, based in The Hague

My hunch was that we wanted something that was not rooted in any one language, but rather a contemporary image that would be drawn from the landscape and heritage of co-operative iconography. So the work started by collecting images of co-ops, as if they were butterflies – or rather bees, birds, sunrise, rainbows, clasped hands, rings, wheat sheaves or pine trees.

With online tools, we could then engage people from across the co-operative sector worldwide in ways that would have been inconceivable just a decade before. The agencies developed a survey, translated into different languages and spread through word of mouth through co-operative networks worldwide. The survey explored what stories people told about co-operation, what it meant to them, what they wanted it to mean to others. What emerged ranged from short testimonies through to extended statements and passionate, poetic narratives.

The survey then offered a series of images, asking people to select which ones best represented their sense of being connected through co-operation, or that were most associated with the co-operative movement.

Over 1,000 people responded, from 86 countries. But what emerged was an insight that turned our first thoughts on their head.

The bad news was that co-operation has largely already been co-opted in design terms. While there were many images that people thought were evocative of co-operation, none were exclusively co-operative. In fact, the logos of so many mainstream business are of images that promise mutuality and co-operation, that you might even that they were all actual mutuals. But, hidden in the survey was our answer.

We asked the question ‘do you think that we should use ‘coop’ or ‘co-op’ to promote our global identity, even though it is not used or understood everywhere?’. The response to this was an overwhelming yes. The very few ‘noes’ we had were in the English language, either concerned on whether there was a hyphen (a Canadian / UK enthusiasm) or whether it would be confused with an enclosure for chickens.

So, while a symbolic image alone wouldn’t be able to express co-operatives in an exclusive way, and while we couldn’t use any other words across the many languages of the world that co-operatives operated in, we could use that one word as a symbol.

With that clarity, Penny Stockham and the team at Calverts set about the design of a marque, drawing on some of the classic imagery, from Belgian postage stamps to the clover leaf imagery of UK retail co-ops. The hyphen or not was solved in the design that brought the two symmetrical ‘o’s together. The result was coopsomething that we could all see was us – it reflected us, it represented us.

Alongside this, we found that colours too vary right across the world, when it comes to co-operation, but also in terms of the widely varied cultural associations with each colour. One colour, plum, was chosen as the home colour for the International Co-operative Alliance, which, led then by Nicola Huckerby on communications, changed its own corporate imagery to come into line with the Marque. Six other colours, plus black, made up a palette to offer local choice to fit local needs.


Alongside the visual marque, of course, there is also a more longstanding shared identifier, which is the dot coop domain name, established in 2002. The International Co-operative Alliance, following a gift from Midcounties Co-operative in the UK, combined these as a marketing offer.



Choosing the right domain name helps your online marketing and brand development.  Because it’s a .coop you also don’t need to say ‘co-operative’ or ‘co-op’ in your name. For example the East River Electric Power Cooperative uses , which is much stronger, and easier to remember. Corn Belt Power Cooperative uses  and Firestorm Cafe & Books uses A French cooperative has the great name of, as does the UK co-op – and of course, there is – the Montana Poultry Growers Co-operative

The Co-operative Marque has been used in many different ways, and this can only grow over time.

cardMy favourite is these credit cards from a co-operative bank in Brazil.

The numbers on the take-up of the Marque are below. It will take time, to build awareness but it can do that in an organic way through the contact and rhythms of co-operatives themselves.

The Marque is free to use, with easy to use guidance, but you need to apply to be able to use it – and, naturally enough, it is limited to co-operatives and a few select organisations, such as the UN International Labour Organisation, that are supportive of the sector. If that’s you, please join in.

It is a bold but simple idea that we can use the toolkit of marketing to share the difference around the world that we aim to offer as people-centred businesses.

A symbol of hope, perhaps.

United Kingdom 104
United States 93
Canada 62
Colombia 48
Spain 31
Brazil 25
Argentina 23
Nigeria 22
Mexico 20
Belgium 15



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!”



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?


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.