The ten lessons of the International Year of Co-operatives

2012 was a year of teamwork, sport and a renewed confidence that the country can pull together. It is perhaps appropriate then that the year was also designated by the United Nations, for the first time, as the International Year of Co-operatives.

It is, now we have finished, a fascinating case study, somewhat removed from run of the mill topic of business marketing. After all, when the United Nations names a year in your honour, what impact does that have?

1. Politicians listen. In launching the International Year, the UN asked every country to review and improve its legislative framework for co-operative enterprise. On just the 19th January 2012, the UK became the first country worldwide to do this as the Prime Minister promised to bring forward a new co-operatives act before 2015. The last time there was a co-operative consolidation act in the 1960s, soon after, as it happens, the launch by the Beatles of “Love me do” their first single in the Co-op Hall in Nuneaton.

2. It is not what happens in Manchester that matters. Over the course of the year, around three hundred co-operative enterprises took part in organizing local events or running promotions under the theme of the United Nations International Year, with common branding used by coops right across the world.

3. Coops are not the goal. They are the means to achieve our goals. In March, a grassroots campaign, emerging out of the UK Uncut campaign, was launched to encourage people to ‘move your money’ from the shareholder banks to the Co-operative Bank or to co-operative credit unions, on the rise across the country. Change the world? Go co-operative.

4. We are going to have such an amazing time with new technology. Co-operate, an iPhone and Android app, is out, for example, letting you find co-operatives close to you, whether one of the four hundred co-operative schools, a housing co-operative or a branch of Nationwide, the UK’s leading building society.

5. Employee ownership works. In the period of Co-operatives Fortnight, the Deputy Prime Minister organised an Employee Ownership Summit, along with the launch of an independent review on how to spread employee owned and worker co-operatives

6. We have alcohol on our side. In July, we sponsored a Financial Times supplement on co-operative and mutual business. Among the example profiled by the Financial Times was the Wine Society. They have been voted National Wine Merchant of the Year at the Decanter World Wine Awards for two consecutive years. As Sarah Evans, Chair of the Wine Society, says “co-operatives make lovely wines.”

7. Nothing counts if you are not successful businesses. The Co-operative Economy, our review of the economic performance of the sector confirmed the commercial success and resilience of the co-operative model. For the last five years, since the credit crunch, the co-operative sector has outperformed the UK economy. Across the UK, co-operative turnover is now £35.6 billion. Since 2008 the number of co-operatives has grown by 23% and there are 13.5 million member owners of co-operatives in the UK.

8. We are bigger than we thought. Or we think. Research I led on global business ownership was re-published by Worldwatch Institute early in the year, revealing that globally there are three times as many member owners of co-operatives as there are direct shareholders. In the fast growing ‘BRIC’ countries of Brazil, Russia, China and India, co-operative sector growth is even more extensive. As a sector worldwide, the International Co-operative Alliance estimates that co-operatives employ 100 million people – more in fact than all the transnational corporations put together.

9. We are more visible than we think. Co-ops are also behind some of the most recognised brands. In recent years, blackcurrent growers in the UK for example formed a co-operative to supply the berries going into Ribena. Working together not only gave them more of a say it gave them a better deal and, in supply terms, it also worked well for Ribena. Similarly, the aptly-named Green Pea Company is a co-operative of UK farmers that provide the produce for Birdseye.

10. What happens in Manchester can matter. At the end of the year, along with the outstanding team at the Co-operative Group and the International Co-operative Alliance, we hosted an International EXPO for co-operative business worldwide. 11,000 people visited the ‘Co-operatives United’ event in Manchester in early November, which showcased the co-operative model not just in the UK but overseas.

The International Year of Co-operatives has been a unique business event. A short video on activities over the United Nations International Year of Co-operatives is on The commercial world should be proud of co-operative enterprises – and to regain its own pride, going co-operative is still an option.

Thank you everyone who followed and who contributed to this special year.

These are the ten lessons I have learned. Do add yours!

5 thoughts on “The ten lessons of the International Year of Co-operatives

  1. Thanks for those reflections, Ed. One of my ‘adds’ would be the rediscovery of co-operative internationalism – the realisation that interacting with our comrades around the world is as important as building links between the different co-op sectors at home. In other words, the local is also the global!

  2. ‘Nothing counts if you are not a successful business’ – would be interested to get your take on Tara Mulqueen’s article arguing that co-ops are fundamentally political, rather than business, entities! (PDF download)

  3. I wouldn’t hold up Co-operate as an example of “amazing” – it’s useful, but (as I’ve told C-UK privately at least three times so far) it runs 24×7 and holds open a connection to tax-dodger Amazon (at least on Android-based phones), eating co-op members’ batteries and running up data costs. I also think I suffered more phone reboots while it was installed. I think there may be members willing to help fix things like that, dog-helps-dog style, so could its innards be published on Gitorious or a similar open site? Or at least document the underlying database interfaces it uses, so members can make alternative apps?

  4. Pingback: Ed Mayo to deliver 2013 Salter Lecture

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