I have had the pleasure to visit the co-operative sector in Norway in recent days, courtesy of the Norwegian Co-operative Centre, Samvirke Senteret. The Centre was founded in 2008 by seven of the largest co-operative organisations and now has 32 members with 87,000 employees and close to £15 bn of turnover together.
Norway is one of those European countries that has such a strong co-operative presence that it is first taken for read, then taken for granted and finally simply overlooked. Denmark, Austria and perhaps Ireland are in the same club. The data on the sector as a result is partial, but still wonderfully impressive – 9,000 – 10,000 co-operatives across the country as a minimum, possibly thousands more across the housing sector.
The most established sectors are retail, agriculture – including forestry and fishing – and housing. Younger sectors include energy, water, transport and kindergartens. The Co-operative of the Year is a car sharing co-op I was pleased to meet. “We have not made anybody very rich, but we have saved a lot of people a lot of money” one of the founders commented.
I also visited a social co-operative, Respect by Aurora Verksted, selling high quality clothing and household goods, all made by members with great taste plus a variety of disabilities. Recently, they have started to source from a sister co-operative workshop in Vietnam, extending their values of positive ability and action internationally.
The retailer Coop Norway has 1.6 million member across 88 constituent local and regional co-ops, with 1,360 stores. 110 of these are hardware stores. Total turnover is around £5.5bn.
Coop Norway earlier this year released a couple of laugh out loud short videos, in which Silicon Valley geeks reinvent the idea of a store owned by the customers, a “coop”, as the latest sharing economy innovation. Instalment 1 is here and 2 here.
The Chair of Samvirke Senteret is Henning Lauridsen, from the Housing Co-op sector, which has close to one millions members with 490,000 dwellings.
Around 60,000 farmers participate in the agricultural co-ops that are members of the centre, with a turnover of £7.5 bn. One is an inspiring potato co-operative, Hoff is leading work to reduce waste and move towards the ‘circular economy’ model of a sustainable business. Owned by four thousand growers, Hoff has diversified beyond its longstanding core of potatoes for Norway’s signature alcohol, Aquavit. While the very first co-op in Norway was a dairy co-op, with 100 cows, set up in 1856 by the Royal Norwegian Society for Development (something it has had a proud track of ever since), there are stories of earlier nineteenth century distilleries for Aquavit, jointly owned but established a share companies.
The coop sector came together to win legislation in 2008. This is a general coop law, defining the form and setting a regulatory framework except where sector rules already operated. Now the Centre is exploring how to promote the model, including in new growth areas such as consultancy, arts and tourism.
I was over to meet the Board of the Centre, to look at ways to support each other, including in a Brexit context, and to present to their annual conference on our uplifting work with members in the UK on co-operative innovation.