How the Co-op became the most loved business in the country

Across one hundred of the largest businesses in the country, the Co-op is loved by four out of five people (84%) in the annual survey by IPSOS.

And the country? It’s Norway.

I have written before about the vibrant and active cooperative sector in Norway, following work with our sister body Samvirke Senteret. I focused then on the farming, forestry and fishery co-ops. The Co-op, a sister to the UK Co-op, is a consumer owned retailer with 1.6 million owners in Norway.

As a mark of confidence, the Co-op has produced a wonderful, funny set of three short videos – about a Silicon Valley sharing economy start up funded by investors to make their next billion that reinvent… the co-op.

The first is set in Silicon Valley, where the team come up with the idea of sharing profits – co-operation- as the next big thing in the sharing economy.

The second is a pool party, where the investor gets cold feet when he realises he will not be the only owner.

The third has the team visiting the richest country in the world, Norway, in search of new investors – only to discover that someone has ‘stolen their idea’ with Co-op stores all across the country.

The CEO of Coop Norway is Geir Inge Stokke. He says:

“Our employees work on a daily basis to ensure that our customers, who are our co-owners, have good shopping experiences. Our own measurements lately have also shown record high customer satisfaction. Nothing gives us a bigger boost than coming top of the most loved list.”

Co-ops rank high in other countries too, such as Italy and the Netherlands where co-operatives are in the top ten brands. In the UK, the Co-op has been named by ICM as the number one campaigning business.

One of the strengths of the consumer co-operative model is the extra connection that being a member owner can bring. You are not simply a customer. Beauty, perhaps, is in the eye of the owner.


After floods and storms, co-ops pick up the pieces – a story of international solidarity

When trouble strikes, it is to your family you turn first. When the news of floods and storms emerged late last year, co-ops in the UK acted as a global family in raising funds to go to local co-ops in the affected regions, to help support their members.

Two years after a spate of devastating rains, for example, Nepal was hit again in 2017 by catastrophic floods and landslides. Relentless rains affected 35 districts of Nepal. 75,000 families were hit by flooding.

I have told the story before of how the UK co-op sector rallied together late last year to raise funds to be channelled through the International Co-operative Alliance (ICA), prompted by Southern Co-operative, with leadership from The Co-op and contributions from a wide range of co-ops, large and small. This is the story of what happened after…

Working through two national networks in Nepal, a programme of support for farmers has been established over 2018 through sixty local co-operatives in the districts of Saptari, Morang, Bardiya and Banke. This has supported 500 members to rebuild buildings, reinstate their farms and restock their livestock. This is invaluable help, deeply appreciated.

Alongside this work, led by the Asia Pacific Region of the ICA, Co-ops UK commissioned a research report by the Co-operative College on good practice for disaster relief through the co-operative sector. Report author, Dr Sarah Alldred comments that:

“The importance of the global co‐operative movement in post‐disaster reconstruction is that it has the solidarity to act together to join forces and mobilise the required resources, whether that be materials, funding or knowledge, skills and people, to rebuild the communities and livelihoods of fellow co‐operative members and their families.”

In the Americas, the preparation has been slower, but with a focus on area with high needs, the State of Oaxaca in Mexico. An earthquake of September 7th 2017 – 8.2 on the Richter scale – destroyed homes, public buildings, markets and churches. Over a year later, the area is still suffering with an estimated twenty thousand people still living without shelter and safety.

One of the targets for support is the coastal municipality of San Dionisio del Mar, with a population of 5,165 (for half of whom, their first tongue is an indigenous language). With resources raised from members of Co-operatives UK, the development work is with three groups of fishermen, associated with the Confederacion Cooperativa Pesquera de Mexico.

The co‐operative movement has frequently played a significant role in responding to crises around post‐disaster relief and reconstruction. Previous examples include:

  • a response in Haiti following on from the 2010 earthquake that killed 316,000 people, left 300,000 injured and made 1.3 million homeless as well as catastrophically damaging infrastructure.
  • In the USA electricity co‐operatives were quick to mobilise and provide disaster relief assistance to isolated and vulnerable communities when over 1.5m electric co‐operative members were left without power after Hurricane Irma struck in 2017.
  • Israeli co‐operative development organisation AJEEC‐NISPED has contributed to relief, reconstruction, and co‐ operative development projects in locations such as Sri Lanka after the 2005 tsunami, Burma after the 2008 cyclone, Haiti after the 2010 earthquake and Japan after the 2012 tsunami, as well as the ongoing refugee disaster in the Middle East and Europe.
  • The Swedish co‐operative development agency We Effect works in the field of sustainable international co‐operative development, but focuses on post‐disaster reconstruction work to support co‐operatives rebuild for example in cases such as where farmers’ fields have been destroyed in the severe floods in northern Vietnam.

The journal Stir to Action has an excellent recent issue, describing some of these, including work by Co-operatives UK in support of co-ops in Asia affected by past tsunamis.

On the back of all of this, I argued at the recent General Assembly of the ICA in Argentina that it is time for the ICA to explore a more consistent set of arrangements for co-operative action in the context of disasters.

With the support of the European Union, the ICA has built a strong infrastructure of activity around co-operatives for development. But, there is as yet no agreed system for practical global action in the context of disasters, evident in the slow response in the Americas region. A draft protocol was developed a decade ago at a meeting of the Committee for the Promotion and Advancement of Cooperatives which links to the United Nations system.

This needs to move from ideas into practical reality. A good model exists in the system proposed in the research by the Co-operative College

In a climate-stressed world, disasters are on the rise. After emergency responses have faded away, typically we find local co-operatives who play a key role in picking up the pieces of reconstruction, focusing on the livelihoods of local people and accountable to them. Co-ops excel at this kind of localism, but the best co-ops are at the same time open and even global in their associations and outlook.

Co-operation prompt us to see a common humanity beyond differences of culture and distance: self-help and mutual aid are powerful tools for any who want to see a sustainable world.

Lets get democratic in business

Information is power. Governance is control. So what do you do if you want a democratic system of decision making and a distributed system of power?

The paradox of hierarchies is that the more layers there are, the poorer the information that results, whether it is lost in the noise, not shared or distorted. Shann Turnbull has estimated that loss at 98% in an organisation with five layers of hierarchy. There is a case therefore that democratic governance, networked governance, can do better.


The co-operative model is a proven model of business, based on principles of economic participation – ownership is by people involved in the business – and equality – member owners have an equal vote.

But, as it happens, we don’t have a systematic and cross-cultural account of how governance works in practice. We have been working on that, with research by Johnston Birchall on large co-operatives and in the coming week, we are running a deep dive workshop on co-operative governance in the Netherlands with sister networks from Holland, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Belgium and Germany.

At a recent roundtable in Westminster, convened by Graham Allen MP,  I listened to Professor James Fishkin, Director of the Centre for Deliberative Democracy in the USA. His recent book, Democracy when the people are thinking, talks about distinct forms of democracy, including:

  • representative democracy – the most widely accepted concept of democracy, based on electoral competition
  • participatory democracy – emphasising mass participation of the people in decision making
  • deliberative democracy – involving deliberation by the people before key decisions are made

The co-operative models of democracy, particularly at scale, have leaned traditionally towards the representative model. But this is changing. Participatory practice – everyday democracy – and deliberative and open models around strategy and innovation are on the rise.

involveAt a personal level, I have learned a huge amount in my time as Chair of Involve, the democracy charity – time which is coming to an end as we look for new trustees and a new Chair.

My contribution to the workshop this week is to give this presentation, now up on Slideshare, on Information Design in Democratic Governance – ten steps towards a richer conception of governance in a co-operative.

The governance design at Rochdale Boroughwide Housing is a great example, using information in a liberating and participatory way.

Slide1As the late Paul Hirst said “democratic governance does not consist just in the powers of citizen election or majority decision, but in the continuous flow of information between governors and the governed, whereby the former seek the consent and co-operation of the latter.”

Co-operative Argentina – visits to a hotel, a bank, a theatre, a restaurant and a print shop

Hugo Cabrera enjoys teaching printing skills to young people coming out of prison, because he has been on the wrong side of the law himself.

In 1992, he and fellow workers at the Grafica Campichuelo print works occupied the site, in protest at its closure by the government and in defiance of an expulsion order from the police.

Forty three of the workers, with the active support of their trade union, came together to bid to save their livelihoods by saving the machinery and the business. To end the conflict and perhaps because they thought it would fail, the Government allowed them to reform as a worker cooperative.

Eleven of those founders, with a workforce now of fifty, are still with the business, which holds the contract for printing car registration documents.

Bringing new people in, without sharing the context of that extraordinary start, took time but they were committed to operating in an open way as a cooperative. “To begin with,” explains Hugo “young workers would watch debates at our Assembly like a crowd at a tennis match. To change that, we moved to decision making in smaller circles, giving new people a chance to participate and build their confidence to contribute and to challenge.”

Hugo has retired now, with the benefits that the cooperative had been able to build up, and now leads the social programme of the business, a foundation which supports training and work skills for people who are homeless or ex-offenders.

Grafica Campichuelo is one example of a recovered or recuperated enterprise, where firms went bankrupt and once abandoned, were taken over by the workforce as a coop.

Hotel Bauen in Buenos Aires is a second example. With a coffee shop, Utopia, and artwork on its walls, the hotel provides free space for solidarity groups, such as recently the annual meeting of the human rights collective that formed during the Dictatorship years. The Mothers of the Disappeared (of the Plaza de Mayo) are now grandmothers and great grandmothers, but their spirit is undimmed and as economic challenges mount up again in Argentina, they carry the torch for democracy and human rights.

Ana Martina of the US Worker Coop Federation at the Hotel Bauen

A hotel, a bank, a theatre, a restaurant and a print shop are among the co-ops I have had the chance to visit over three days in Buenos Aires, alongside the programme of the International Cooperative Alliance. (I have written a report of the Assembly of the Alliance for Co-op News, which you can find here.)

As the President of the national Cooperative Bank, with 250 branches and 1.5m members, put it to me: “our job is to combine efficiency and democracy and to demonstrate that the result is a better bottom line”.

Can organisations have courage? A story of brave hearts and values led organisation

This week, on 18 October 2018, it is World Values Day.

The first World Values Day was soon after Routledge published my own book, Values: how to bring values to life in your business in 2016 and it has been wonderful to see the


day grow and spread. There are millions of organisations working worldwide that are led by values – not least 2.9 million co-operatives that are bound by a common, global statement of values and principles. By chance, the same day is International Credit Union Day, of financial co-ops around the world.

There is a short introduction to World Values Day by Charles Fowler in a blog for the RSA. The day in short is an opportunity to think about your most deeply held values and to act on them. Staying true to our values and acting on them has never been more important and this year’s core theme is around one core principle of co-operatives, shared with many others, which is about care for the community.


Residents of Joy Village, Nigeria

One of the less recognised values that I have looked out for since my book was published is that of bravery. I had the chance to ask a number of key people involved in one such organisation at an event with former colleagues on consumer rights in Edinburgh. The organisation was the Scottish Consumer Council which lasted for around forty years until merged and disbanded a decade ago.

The Scottish Consumer Council was fearless in championing the interests of the consumer against some formidable industry interests, including lawyers, farmers and financiers. Yet it was never a campaigning organisation, fuelled by self certainty or self righteousness. Its reports were careful in their detail and considered in their findings. What the organisation had, under Chairs such as Dames Barbara Kelly and Deirdre Hutton and Directors Peter Gibson, Martyn Evans and Trisha McAuley, was courage.

How can a lawyer ever be his own judge - Sarah O'Neill SCC Scotsman 6 September 1999 2To be threatened with legal action by the Law Society in Scotland or shouted down in a room with hundreds of farmers took personal courage, but key was the extent to which the organisation stood behind the individual on the end of that. It did pay off, such as work starting with the 1986 report I’m Not Happy with My Solicitor, which led over time to basic information on the costs of legal advice and the formation of an independent complaints system for lawyers across the country. The history of the organisation is told in a report funded by the Peter Gibson Memorial Fund.

A culture for courage I learned was down to the following:

  • the encouragement at staff level of fierce and forensic internal debate
  • careful review and decision making by the Board before going public, and then
  • complete loyalty across Directors and staff teams to those making the case in public.

This means maximising internal diversity, to anticipate tests and challenges that could come up in the outside world, and drawing on the confidence such a principle engenders to commit from the top down to external unity, whatever the pressures were that emerged.

We should not confuse courage with marketing – it is easy for companies to claim to be bold. And we should not confuse courage with recklessness, at least if you are an organisation and you want to succeed over time. Courage is an individual attribute, so for different individuals across an organisation all to share courage as an organisational value I think requires the opposite of recklessness.

Organisational courage is the creation of a space for shared safety in which people can be courageous, because they are prepared for what is to come through a process of learning.

The most courageous organisations are those that have a commitment to foster internal challenge and dissent, in which fears are anticipated, opportunities tested and lessons learned.

How community shares became a game changer for local action in the UK

Screen Shot 2018-09-11 at 18.15.19Community shares have become a real co-operative game changer for local projects across the UK.

Community shares allows communities of people to come together, to crowdfund to save or launch enterprises, such as pubs or renewable energy projects, by investing often small sums of money and becoming co‑owners in the process.

Over the last decade, and we are working on the data so these are tentative, around 120,000 people have co-invested well over £100 million in 350 community businesses.

Getting the quality right, to flag up risks and keep trust high has been key to its success. Three years ago, at the community sports centre of FC United, we launched the Community Shares Standard, a quality assurance mark for the field. Since then, exactly one hundred initiatives have received the standard mark. That’s nice timing as this week, in England, is Communities Week.

The Community Shares Standard Mark was developed by the Community Shares Unit, run by Co‑operatives UK and Locality, with early support from the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) to underpin the quality of share offers.

eden-community-limited_1The 100th standard mark recipient, Eden‑Rose Community Limited in Suffolk, aims to raise £80,000 from the local community to support its mission to use woodlands and the natural environment as a way to provide support to children and adults with life‑limiting illnesses, such as cancer.

Capital matters for projects like this. Equity is what most social ventures typically need: patient capital for the long term rather than expensive short-term debt, which is where the wider field of social investment has tended to focus. Most social enterprises are under-capitalised and over-trading. They are on a knife edge, with tight balance sheets and nervy cash flow.

For a community share offer, you need a clear business at its heart with income over time, so that there is a route to repaying capital over time. The assets are then locked. They can’t be distributed, but they can of course be repaid – at par value.

By becoming a member owner of a community benefit society and investing through community shares, a person who may have once “donated” and be at arms length from the operation of a charity can now move closer to the cause they believe in and have a real say and involvement in how their money is used. The story of Clevedon Pier is an example of one organisation retaining its charitable status but moving to a democratic society model to enable it to raise community shares – set out in a Charity Commission case report as a positive example for other charities to follow.

Some open market research that Co-operatives UK has conducted shows that one in four people would invest money or time to help save local community assets.

23% would be likely to invest to help save their local pub from closure, and they would give time and energy to help run other local assets such as a local park or public space (25%), historical site or building (24%), or cinema or theatre (16%).

Local shares? Local people investing in local enterprises? If it sounds like a return to a community capitalism or mutuality of the past, remember that it is different. It uses modern technology platforms, mobilises communities to act as communities and, critically, keeps control in the hands of democratically organised members.

It is a reinvention of the co-operative form for new times. Community shares is a way to get things done.

Can business ever be the good guy?

Eighteen years ago, I was at the think tank New Economics Foundation and we looked then at the commercial value of being trusted as a business. We found some impressive gains to a number of brands who were consistent at translating trust into customer and workforce loyalty. But as a whole, the field of business saw trust as something to take advantage of, rather than something to build.

In work led by my colleague Alex MacGillivray, we compared data then (2000) with eighteen years previously and found that the proportion of people who believe that companies are fair to consumers was down from 61% to 44%. It was as if to get on in business was seen as getting one over on your customers.

From a customer perspective, if you were trusting, renewing insurance or sticking with mortgage deals for example, then the result tended to be that you got a worse deal. The great withdrawal of consumer trust in UK business is sad to see but it has been rational given the way that business overall has behaved.

Today, we updated the research, repeating the same survey questions of 1983 and 2001. This shows a continuation in the trend away from trust in business. Just over one in three people (36%) now believe that most companies in the UK are fair to consumers.

consumer confidenceAt the same time, some businesses retain high levels of consumer trust. Over six out of ten people (62%) surveyed trust co-operative businesses, such as The Co-op Group or Arla, which are owned by their members who all have a say in how the business is run.

This data follows on from last month’s Co-op Economy report, published by Co-operatives UK, which found that new co-ops are almost twice as likely as start-up companies to survive their first five years.

What are the drivers for this? Digging behind the headline, the results suggested that the strongest driver for whether people trust an individual businesses comes from it is a good employer. Customer service and value comes close behind. This suggests that the decline of trust in business is not that customers are losing out, but gaining as employees. They are losing out in both contexts. Over three out of four people (76%) now believe that big business benefits owners at the expense of its workers.

dogs-567257_1920High street closures, falling profits and uncertainty around Brexit makes this an extraordinarily challenging period for British business, but it will be tougher still if the UK has indeed hit a new low in terms of consumer confidence in business.

The academic research on trust tends to recognise the value of when people turn down opportunities for short-term personal gain in favour of shared benefit over the longer-term. Action like this is good at building trust, because it has a proof point. Over time, the pattern of behaviour can be recognised as the expression of underlying values – and again trust can be rooted over time in the affiliation that comes with shared values.

It may feel that business can never be the good guy – or the good gal. But in a co-operative, this trust-building feature fits very closely two time-honoured commitment devices of profit sharing and giving a voice to those involved in the business.

hand-683909It is no good for anyone for business to be cast as a perpetual baddy. It puts people off from getting involved themselves in enterprise, it puts people off as workers with the UK’s lower levels of engagement and productivity, it puts people off in terms of trying new products and services from good businesses trying to innovate.

Business can’t just be about investors. It is time for UK Plc, before it is too late, to learn to recast its relationship with customers and employees in a more co-operative spirit.