Exclusive interview: Santa Claus converts to a co-op

https://www.flickr.com/people/17728695@N00What got you interested in converting to a co-operative?

In Lapland, we have a sparsely populated country with a short summer and a long, hard winter. So the idea of people working together to get things done comes naturally. I have always admired the co-operatives I have seen in Finland, where there are more members, added together, than there are people.

We work in a fast-paced Christmas market, with the need for constant innovation. Every year, we have to up our productivity, because population levels worldwide are rising and that means, in particular, more young people than ever before. We are big on automation, but ultimately Christmas is a people business. Young people around the world look to me. You can have all the artificial intelligence you want but still fail to get artificial intimacy.

Yes, we talked about privatisation, but it seemed mad to me the idea of a service to young children in the hands of venture capital and institutional investors. So, we looked at co-op models.

How do you work now as a co-op?

There are so many myths about Santa Claus and to be honest all that mystery helps the brand, so I am not about to reveal quite how we operate. But the co-operative structure is simple and is based, of course, on the values of elf-help.

The workshop naturally lends itself to a worker ownership ethos and giving ownership to those involved, or out on the sleighs helps to reinforce the Christmas spirit, even when we are at our absolute most busy.

We have adapted the co-op model of one person, one vote to a multi-species co-operative, with one elf, one vote, one reindeer, one vote and we are interested over time in whether we can bring children in as a separate membership constituency.  There are a lot of co-ops moving towards this kind of ‘multi-constituency’ model, of a 360 degree co-op which gives members rights to everyone involved. I wouldn’t say it is easy, and we have to work hard to build a common culture and set of values that are shared right across the enterprise. Over time, we could become what some people call a platform co-op – using technology to link members in a genuinely joint endeavour.

I do want to thank Co-operatives UK and the Co-operative Bank, which gave us valuable advice on converting to a co-op through the Hive Programme – that advice is open to all co-ops or would-be co-ops and the UK is a particularly good place to be registered in as a co-operative society.

Do you co-operate with other co-operatives – the ‘Principle 6’ approach?

Well, it is early days but we are very excited by the potential to source gifts from co-operative supply chains. Some of the vegan produce on offer in Chorlton in England from Unicorn Grocery, some of the Principle 6 label goods from US food co-ops, the award-winning champagne from the UK Co-op Group – all of these are good for spreading goodwill.

Do you have any advice for the 2.9 million co-ops you will fly over this Christmas?

Just be good. And remember that the secret of success is sharing it.


There is a successful European model of economic development … and it is called the social economy

New data prepared by economics professors Damien Rousselière and Anne Musson demonstrates that countries in Europe with higher levels of cooperative values in their society have seen higher levels of recent economic performance.

Forget the daily market news. The larger question for economic policy across countries is how to generate prosperity on an inclusive and sustainable basis.

Europe still offers some of the clues as to how to achieve this, even if, battered by austerity and sovereign debt, it has lost confidence in its own difference.

Values map

In June 2017, Dr Tom Crompton (Director, Common Cause Foundation) completed a map of cooperative values across the world, the first of its kind, testing the extent to which the public in different countries aligned themselves with the values at the heart of the co-operative model.

Euro values 2

The top three countries in Europe were Norway, Spain and Finland, nations perhaps not surprisingly with outstanding and strong cooperative enterprise sectors touching many or most households.

Picking up on this, Professors Damien Rousselière (Professor of Economics, Agrocampus Ouest, SMART-LERECO) and Anne Musson (Assistant Professor of Economics, Full-time Faculty, ESSCA School of Management, SMART-LERECO) have compared the results to more traditional economic data, to test the links:

“We estimate a correlation between wealth and cooperative values of European Countries, using an econometric model that take into account the variability of these values inside a given country. Due to missing data, analysis based on Cooperative Values Score cannot be computed for Malta and Latvia.”

“Economic wealth (as measured by Gross Domestic Product, GDP) and Cooperative Values Score (CVS) are highly correlated among European Countries. A 1% growth of GDP is linked with a growth in CVS between 0.22% (in Bulgaria) and 0.62% (in Luxemburg), with a mean of 0.37% for the European Union. This empirical finding is consistent with previous economic literature on growth and social capital which underlines an economic pay-off of the social economy (cooperative and non profit) sector.” 


This finding is important. It has long been argued that cooperation shapes economic competitiveness through the influence of culture. Mario Grondona, for example, has explored the role of culture in supporting or hindering economic development.  He found that there were three groups of characteristics that explained success: norms relating to individual behaviour (strong work ethic, individual accountability, agency); norms relating to co-operative behaviour (value generosity and fairness, and sanction those who free-ride and cheat); and norms around innovation. Professor Tim Kasser, similarly, has explored how values of egalitarianism and harmony link to improved child well-being and also to sustainable development (in terms of lower greenhouse gas emissions).

With the association found by Professor Rousselière and Musson, a European social model of economic development emerges, with one possible transmission mechanism in particular – the social economy of cooperatives, mutuals and non-profits.

Cooperatives are strong across Europe, with 141 million members and 4.7 million employees. It was European cooperative enterprises that were first to introduce an eight hour day in factories, the first to champion a minimum wage, the first to give business backing to the idea of national health and welfare services. Today, cooperatives and the wider Social Economy represent around 10% of all European enterprises.

Cooperatives Europe has been working with its member networks to call on the European Council to recognise the contribution of the cooperative sector – and the potential to create a Europe that is closer, not in terms of political integration but in terms of social cohesion, economic collaboration and democratic engagement.

These rich and varied cooperative networks include Housing Europe (European Federation of Public, Cooperative & Social Housing), CECOP (The European Confederation of Cooperatives and worker-owned enterprises active in industry and services), Copa-Cogeca (European agri-cooperatives), EACB (European Association of Cooperative Banks), Euro Coop (European Community of Consumer Cooperatives), EUSP (European Union of Social Pharmacies), REScoop (European federation of renewable energy cooperatives).

Cooperatives were involved at the start and at the heart of the European project. The European Commission on the back of its early 2017 White Paper on the Future of Europe starts by saying that Europe was once the future, pointing to the inspiration of the Manifesto di Ventotene, co-written by Ernesto Rossi while he was held prisoner by fascist authorities in the Second World War.

Rossi was the founder and member of a cooperative, and its exchanges were core to his ideas.

So the Manifesto calls for a free and united Europe, as the Commission White Paper points out. But the Manifesto also goes far further by suggesting how that Europe should be organised – with “industrial reform which will extend workers’ ownership in non-nationalized sectors, through co-operative adventures, employee profit-sharing, and so on.”

Yes, this Europe is still the future.

Folk tales as presents? A co-operative offer as a seasonal gift…

If you are looking for something a little different for seasonal gifts, how about a book of modern folk tales?

Knock Twice is a collection published by the co-operative think tank, the New Weather Institute and the Real Press. The book brings together short tales from earth scientists, experts on climate change and finance, archaeologists, writers, economists and, as a first foray into fiction, me.

As Andrew Simms, who edited the collection (and an earlier one called There was a Knock at the Door) explains. “After years of campaigning on the assumption that rational arguments would win, we need to try a different tack. Even with all the evidence in the world, it is our imagination that we need to exercise, if we are to find a new path and a sustainable economy,”

Try this introduction from ‘The Days of the Wolf Trial’ by Hamish Fyfe:

The wooden shaft of the axe burnt in the woodcutter’s hand as he sliced it down towards the wolf’s head. Doing so their eyes met, locked in loathing and wonder. Just then, the woodcutter landed his axe with terrifying force inches away from the wolf’s head, splitting the wood on which the animal lay entirely in two. The wolf and the man held their steady gaze with the force of centuries of mutual distrust and animus between their species. Neither flinched.

“‘I will spare you’ said the woodcutter, ‘but only that human justice can be done and your fate decided by the laws of men.’ The heart of the wolf sank at this…

Read on, or give on, by ordering your copy from Real Press, £8.99 here

Ten Sayings of Robin Murray

In preparation for a three minute talk I gave today at a memorial event for Robin Murray, convened by his family, I have looked through email exchanges with myself, Pat Conaty, Laurie Gregory and colleagues in the co-operative sector, in his role as a very distinguished Associate of Co-operatives UK. There is so much more value of course than I did justice to on my feet, so here are some (edited, note) sayings of Robin over time that I draw out that strike me as timely and profound.

1. Sharing

At the heart of cooperation is sharing. If your identity is about possession, about having, sharing is a threat. If you are open to a wider sense of identity and value, that comes from sharing and collective being, it is an affirmation. Hence the great importance of the experience of cooperation, of festivals and dance, or common meals, of working together on a common task.

2. Prisoner’s Dilemma

I spent today being shown around Crumlin Gaol, by one of the people who’d been interned there, talking social innovation, peace and reconciliation. Talk about cooperation! The Prisoner’s Dilemma which is all about individualism is in some ways the opposite of what seems to characterise life there.

3. Democracy

I am struck by the emphasis needed on the spirit and temper of democrats rather than the pre-occupation with institutional structures. Democrats are not defined by institutions but by their relationships and being. Democracy depends on democrats just as cooperation depends on cooperators.

4. Capital

The story of King Midas, and later versions (such as Volpone – “good morrow to the world. And next my gold. Open the shrine so I may see my saint”) are reactions to the expansion of commodity relations and the first transformation of money into capital. I’ve always felt uneasy about using the terms human capital, social capital and so on because it obscures the fact that money capital is ‘self-expanding value’ – it’s only raison d’etre is to expand. Human, social and indeed natural capital do not have this same impulsion. We risk losing ourselves in the infinity of monetary expansion to the exclusion of all else.

5. Against the normal

Many of the most successful social ventures are centred on propositions that invert the norm. Slow food as against fast food. Peer lending between those without assets. Jaime Lerner’s Curitiba that paid for your waste rather than taxed you for collecting it. Care co-operatives that are about relationships rather than customer services.

6. Four types of co-operative

We can perhaps make a distinction of four types of co-operatives:

– those formed to counter a market monopoly (e.g. consumer coops against wholesalers or monopoly retailers)

– those formed to undercut a structural monopoly (e.g. Community Land Trusts over land, or worker co-operatives over capital)

– those formed to realise the productive economies of co-operation, through specialisation, sharing of indivisible equipment or land, or knowledge and information

– those formed to create an alternative economy centred around some concept of the good life.

They are not exclusive, but they may involve different kinds of governance and forms of cooperation. And they may have different trajectories (with the fourth commonly dissolving into one or more of the others)

7. Market power

It is striking how many sectors of the economy are dominated by a few large firms. Here is the bind. We depend on these companies yet they abuse their position.

8. Long waves of cooperation

The Rochdale Pioneers came out of a counter movement in the 1840s. There was a surge of cooperation in the 1880s and 1890s in Europe in the wake of the long depression and of rural electricity coops in the US in the depression of the 1930s. Standing back, we see that just as there have been long waves of economic prosperity, so there have been long waves of cooperation.

9. Cooperatives and the state

Early co-operatives in the nineteenth century developed separately from the state, and often in conflict with it. It was a social economic movement to provide basic needs for urban workers, rural communities and small farmers, based on mutuality and self-help. By the late C19 it had become what Lord Rosebury called ‘a state within a state’, jealous of its autonomy. But from 1945 onwards, it was undercut in many spheres by the expansion of the welfare state. Education, health, social insurance, housing, libraries, many leisure services became services provided by the state not by self-help. Slow to innovate, the UK cooperative movement entered fifty years of economic retrenchment. Now perhaps we are entering a third phase. Now we have a retrenchment of the state and a resurgence of the cooperative and social economy movement. One key innovation may be a model of public social partnership, which marries the advantage of cooperative, self-managed decentralisation with the public ‘systemation’ that provides coherence to the complex and diverse ecology of a digital age.

10. Automation

Automation is coming but it does not dissolve the challenge of economic production. It does not solve the social design of technology and its control. It does not replace the growing need for relational services and human experiences. It does not solve the quest for the life affirming character of meaningful work. Attempting to build an alternative economics or politics without a connection to the practice of production, including virtual production of course, is like building it on sand.

A co-operative Europe – please take action

In or out for the UK, the future of Europe is being shaped right now, with the EU Council meeting on 15th of December to set a blueprint for the economy over the next ten years. This is the culmination of work kicked off by the EU President at the start of this year, in a consultation on the Future of Europe.

As I pointed out, in a blog post for Cooperatives Europe, in September, the early founders of the EU in fact envisaged a far more democratic economy with co-operative enterprise and employee ownership throughout. That vision of Europe is still to fight for.

To make an influence, we need co-operators and partners in the wider social economy to raise their voice. So I’d like to ask you to join our communications campaign through Thunderclap to show your support for a cooperative Europe that brings Europe closer to its citizens, values, a fairer society and the future.

The more people sign up, the stronger the cooperative voice is, so please do consider whether you can sign up with your personal social media accounts, organisation accounts, and ask your colleagues to sign up as well.

To support the campaign, please:

1 click on this link: http://bit.ly/2zFjIeu.

2 click the ‘support with’ Facebook/Twitter button.

3 share it with your contacts.

Cooperatives Europe will outline our own vision for a cooperative Future of Europe on December 11, for all the European institutions, inside and outside the European Union (EU) – the UK may leave the EU but we are still a European nation, open to a #CloserEurope through #coops.

Your help would be very much appreciated.

A visit from Japan

We have had a welcome set of visitors, from the co-operative sector in Japan in recent weeks.

The Japan Co-operative General Research Institute (JC-Soken) coordinated a powerful delegation of co-operative leaders, from a diverse range of the country’s wonderful range of co-ops – from insurers to worker co-ops.

Japan delegationKenki Maeda, from JC-Soken, briefed me at the outset on the state of the Japanese sector. Having been writing on the history of the co-operative movement, I was delighted to find that Japan too, as with many other countries, had forerunners of the modern co-operative movement.

Sontoku NINOMIYA was born in 1787 and was an administrator, innovator and philosopher. He saw agriculture as a communal venture, where surpluses could be put to communal benefit, extending farming land, saved for reserves or shared when required. Credit was key, but it needed to be affordable. His lead helped to spread of mutual organisations called “Hotokusha” across communities.

In the twentieth century, co-operative laws helped to establish and underpin the growth of a wide range of co-operatives, including agriculture, fisheries, consumer retail, health, insurance, credit unions and forestry.

In agriculture, for example, JA-ZENCHU operates as the Central Union of Agricultural Co-operatives, with around 660 primary co-ops in the sector. In the consumer co-operative sector, JCCU (Japanese Consumers’ Cooperative Union) estimate that there are 558 primary co-operatives, with a combined membership of 28.7 million people. In the insurance sector, the Japan Co-operative Insurance Association estimates that there are over 2,600 co-operatives, covering 75.38 million members.

While having specific laws with their own focus and link into government and local communities, one unintended consequence has been the lack of a joined up and integrated framework for co-operatives as a whole. Worker co-ops for example lack their own law, while few co-operative leaders are convinced that the current, or new, government of Prime Minister Abe is  sympathetic to Japan’s co-operative traditions. Business governance is high on the political agenda, with a Corporate Governance Code and Stewardship Code introduced since 2013, but this is conventional corporate governance rather than the member-owned or community-oriented model of co-operatives.

The Japanese associations of co-operatives are therefore exploring how to work together more effectively, trying to reorganize the existing Japan Joint Committee of Co-operatives (JJC) and to create a stronger cross-sectoral organization with more human and other resources. It was under these auspices that the Co-operative College in the UK hosted a distinguished delegation of senior co-operators – keen to learn what works and what doesn’t work so well here in the UK.


The new cross-sectoral organization will have three roles

  1. Promotion of, and support for, cooperation among cooperatives in various sectors, at the local, prefectural and national levels,
  2. Policy advocacy and public relations for cooperatives as a whole,
  3. Education and research of cooperatives (gathering, sharing and disseminating information, such as cooperatives’ good practices).

ChallengesIt is inspiring to have this dialogue and contact across nations.

Each has its own deep historical roots and identity. Each has shared challenges and things to learn.

Pirates as early co-operatives?

To be a pirate is to set yourself against society and its rules. To even the odds, pirates come together. They co-operate.

It might sound like an extreme claim, but there is a body of evidence of early mutuality and even democracy among some of the most successful seventeenth century Caribbean and Atlantic pirates.

Bartholomew Roberts, Welsh born, was the most renowned pirate of his day. By the time he died, in February 1722, resplendent on deck in his crimson waistcoat, struck by Royal Navy grapeshot, he and his crews had captured around four hundred vessels. His approach to organising, giving every pirate a say and a share, was described by Captain Charles Johnson two years later in his A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the most notorious Pyrates.

Drawing on my new short book – free to download – which is a retelling of the history of co-operation and mutuality, I have expanded on this, in an article about Pirates, Mutiny and Mutuality on Huffington Post.

Pirate co-ops… is this a tradition we will draw on again?