Badges of co-operation

How would you tell the story of your work?

This was the question posed to me by Liz McIvor, manager at the Co-operative Heritage Trust, earlier this year when I told her I was leaving. The question stayed with me for some time, before I found an answer.

In modern work, there are endless documents and emails and I trust that the archivists of the future will be intelligent machines because I wouldn’t wish my inbox or my folders on anyone. But an answer did come to me, because it turns out that over ten or more years, I have unknowingly become a collector – of co-operative badges.

Having sorted my desk, emptied my bags, checked my pockets and dusted down my lapels, I have pulled together fifty seven badges from the UK and around the world that I have picked up over time. Here is the story of my ten plus years in the form of my ten favourite beautiful co-op badges…

  1. This badge was one I brought with me to Co-operatives UK when I arrived in Manchester in the Autumn of 2009. I had been one of the team that started the Fairtrade Mark, many years before (another story and one that I retold in an article for Co-op News). Early on, I liaised with the fair trade community and did the calculations to show that seventy five per cent of all fair trade at the time was from producer co-operatives.
  1. I wanted us to free up our thinking. Let’s see the word co-operative not just as a thing – a noun – but as who we can be – an adjective. This badge was produced by Co-operatives UK for the first Co-operatives Fortnight in 2010, an idea suggested by Chris Herries, a period designed to allow for promotion of the co-operative model over two weeks running up to the International Day of Cooperatives on the first Saturday in July.
  1. Co-operatives United was a programme of events in Manchester to mark the close of the United Nations International Year of Co-operatives in 2012. Over ten thousand people took part in a series of events, including the formal Co-operative Congress of the International Co-operative Alliance (ICA). When I spoke, to give me confidence, I wore my dad’s socks. My highlight though was playing for an ICA football team against a youth side from the sports co-operative FC United of Manchester, at their ground. So co-operative, they allowed us eighteen players from all around the world to their eleven and gave us their goalkeeper, all of which contributed to a surprise 3-2 win for the ICA. I still have my ICA football shirt, donated by the Bulgarian Co-operative Union.
  1. I love a good rainbow, but it was noticeable to most people that the rainbow logo of the International Co-operative Alliance (ICA) adopted in 1925 suggested that we were a gay rights organisation. Fair enough, but there is more to co-ops too. Drawing on the earlier ideas of others, I proposed formally to the Board of the ICA that a new visual identity be developed, one that could work as a logo and as a brand that could be used by co-ops around the world. It was accepted and I oversaw the development and launch in 2013 of the International Co-operative Marque, with design by Calverts worker co-op and organisation behind the scenes by Nicola Huckerby.
  1. As an elected member of Cooperatives Europe, I had the privilege of visiting Finland a number of times and it is a country with an extraordinary co-operative reach. The saying is that the Americans had Rockefeller and Ford and Finland had the co-ops. This badge is a miniature replica of the SOK consumer co-op membership card, which is also a bank card, given to me by Professor Salme Näsi. I wrote about my first visit to Finland in 2014 in an article in the Guardian newspaper.
  1. In 2014, I visited the worker co-op SUMA, Europe’s largest equal pay employer, to give them the award of Co-operative of the Year. Along with me on the visit was the President of the Trades Union Congress, Mohammed Taj, and the General Secretary of the Bakers and Food Workers Union (BAFWU), Ronnie Draper. SUMA had had a branch of the union for thirty years and 80% of its members are union members. I swapped badges with Ronnie, so that he walked away with a co-op badge from Co-operatives UK.
  1. With co-ops, I have found you can only act fast if first you have talked slow. This is a badge I was given in 2014 to mark the formation of a new combined bilingual co-operative association in Canada. A lot of patient diplomacy went into the merger and it certainly helped to raise the national voice of the sector. I saw this when I visited for the annual Congress of Co-operatives and Mutuals Canada in 2018, on Vancouver Island. [But as an aside, there is an eccentric side to all this diplomacy. The single most ridiculous conversation in the life of the co-operative movement has been whether or not to use a hyphen in the word cooperative (woops / haha – delete as appropriate). Note how the use or not of the hyphen in the word co-op on the badge is delicately sidestepped by the use of a maple leaf. How very, er… co-operative.]
  1. This is the logo of the Fair Tax Mark, an accreditation service for businesses on the challenge of tax transparency, formed as a society and backed first by co-operative societies that took up its offer. The initiative was championed by some inspiring people, including Richard Murphy, Paul Monaghan and the team at Ethical Consumer; at a time of austerity, tax was the number 1 public concern around business behaviour. In 2016, we did the research to show that the five largest UK co‑operatives paid 50% more corporate tax than Amazon, Facebook, Apple, eBay and Starbucks combined…
  1. I was given this by Hugo Cabrera in 2018 when I visited Grafica Campichuelo, his workers print co-operative. The visit was alongside the 2018 International Co-operative Alliance General Assembly in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Hugo’s story was one of a business that had been occupied by workers and turned around when the owners had tried to close it. It was an inspiring story and, as so often, one I recorded at the time as a blog post.
  1. I love the classic clover leaf design of the logo of The Co-op Group, following its rebrand. I joined The Co-op Group as a teenager and have been proud to stand alongside the business as it has moved forward after the crisis of 2014/15, with the shock demutualisation of the Co-operative Bank. When I attended their 2019 Annual General Meeting, they were celebrating five successive years of like-for-like growth in food sales under the leadership of Chief Executive Steve Murrells. The record of social and environmental action by The Co-op Group is as long as your arm. As with so many co-operatives that I encountered over my ten plus years, being owned by your members means that you act for them and for their communities rather for the enrichment of a small number of institutional investors.

I have collected 57 badges that are in a bag to go to Liz and her team for the Co-operative Heritage Archive in Manchester. I will take them up when travel allows.

May the co-operative practice of sharing ownership and profits ever flourish, until one day, it becomes the norm.

And then perhaps, we will need no more badges…

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