Say Cheese… or how Gruyère got co-operation going over six hundred years ago

We are launching now a fresh re-telling of the story of co-operation, in a short book which tracks early cases of mutuality around the world. The book, available free to download and in English and Spanish editions, is called A Short History of Co-operation and Mutuality.

Drawing on this, I have also put together a slide deck of twelve early co-ops, with design support from colleagues at Co-op News.

One of the examples, that came to me courtesy of colleagues in France, Coop FR and the international social economy journal RECMA, is the case of cheese.

In rural Switzerland and the Franche-Comté region of France, cheese-making societies, termed Fruitière (ripening) started in the fourteenth century, then spreading to other European countries. From informal reciprocity, exchanging milk between neighbours, these developed into full mutual societies. Each round typically lasted for a year, starting in February with the first milk coming in March or April. The accounting system was in urns of milk – the farmer that took the cheese was then debtor to others who had contributed milk – and the product, and dividend from its sale, was the cheese.

In these mountainous areas, it is possible to trace the lines of mutuality from these neighbourhood associations, present in different forms and with different functions across medieval Europe, through the development of self-governing quality standards and charters, such as the Appellations d’Origine Protégée, to the co-operatives that are responsible for the production of Comté and Gruyère cheese today.

Writing in the late nineteenth century, George Jacob Holyoake declared “it is clear that Gruyère should be the favourite cheese of co-operators, as it is the first cheese made on their system.”

There are many more stories in the book. Thanks to the International Co-operative Alliance, around two thousand delegates coming to Malaysia from around the world will get a copy. My hope is that we learn more about and take confidence from the enduring way in which different cultures and different generations have harnessed co-operation as a way to live and work together.


What if it is co-operating and not competing that’s key to getting ahead?

Business, careers, even education… we are increasingly told that to get on is to get ahead, to compete. But what if it wasn’t competing with others that powers success in business and in life, but co-operating with them?

Co-operation in the economy is not often talked about, but it has always been there.

The first powered flight took place in December 1903 by the Wright Brothers. What followed was then a bitter rivalry for the next fifteen years between them and a rival airplane maker, Glenn Curtis. Come America’s entry into the First World War and no American airplane was viewed as good enough to go into combat. The Wright brothers and Glenn Curtis were willing to see the airplane industry grounded than to see the other win out in terms of setting standards for airplanes to succeed.


Orville Wright, 1911 – U.S. Army Air Service photo collection ID# in caption above Photo Courtesy of the Unites States Air Force Historical Research Agency, Maxwell AFB, Alabama. Photos are from the national archives (NARA). Source: 


In 1917 US Congress forced the formation of the Manufacturers Aircraft Association. This was a way to set shared standards and pool the critical patents needed for airplanes and the aeroplane industry to take off.

The same idea of a patent pool is used today to cut the costs of HIV retroviral drugs in Africa.

Sometimes you have to co-operate, to get ahead.