The first Annual General Meetings – for mediaeval guilds – took place on Saints Days, so there was time off and a feast to share. It can seem a tougher gig nowadays, but it is the Annual General Meeting in Manchester of The Co-op Group this weekend and for the past few years, this has been a wonderfully uplifting event.
Five successive years of like-for-like growth in food sales means that there is a spring in the step of The Co-op. Alongside trading, there is an increasingly ambitious and far-reaching programme of reinvestment in the communities in which The Co-op is located.
Being owned by members and not by shareholders means that The Co-op can do things that benefit their 4.5 million members and their communities across the UK rather than a small number of institutional investors in the City of London.
Under the leadership of Steve Murrells, for example, The Co-op was first to back British farmers by sourcing all meat from them – everything from the fresh cuts you’d expect to be British to the ready meals, the sandwiches, bacon and sausages. It wasn’t just an ethical thing to do, it was also smart business. With Brexit, others are having to catch up, with their overseas supply chains less secure.
A key theme this weekend is likely to be about how to make this reinvestment visible, so that it is clear to people that when they pop to the Co-op in their community, the community benefits.
With the High Street under pressure, shops being undercut because they pay taxes that online businesses avoid, the challenge at a community level is greater than ever. The data around this is set out in a new Community Wellbeing Index developed for The Co-op by the Young Foundation (named after Michael Young, one of the great innovators and co-operators of the twentieth century).
One pound spent in a Co-op store brings an added forty pence in benefits to the local economy. We know this from work we have done at Co-operatives UK tracing how customer spending has a different impact in retail co-ops to other businesses, where the value is extracted for outside, whether headquarters in the UK or for some, tax havens overseas.
As one colleague at The Co-op puts it:
When you buy from Co-op it does good. The more you, your friends and family shop with Co-op, the more good we can do in our communities. Good things like investing in community spaces, improving wellbeing and helping people develop their skills.
Every community needs an economic and social base for its health and increasingly we see co-ops and social enterprise, large and small, as catalysts for this urgently needed form of community economic development.
So, yes. Where we shop can make a real difference.