Co-operatives are hugely important to the economy, respond to social change, and are resilient, successful businesses creating jobs in all sectors.
The International Co-operative Alliance (ICA) defines a co-operative as: “an autonomous association of persons united voluntarily to meet their common economic, social, and cultural needs and aspirations through a jointly-owned and democratically-controlled enterprise”. Put more simply, a co-operative is a business owned and run by the people who work there and/or use its services.
What do co-ops do?
Co-ops range from small-scale to multi-million dollar businesses in over 100 countries across the globe, employ more than 100 million people and have more than 800 million individual members.
- Champagne is predominantly produced by co-operatives
- 75% of Fairtrade goods are produced by co-operatives of smallholders
- Co-operatives employ over 20% more people than multinational corporations
- Visit the Co-operative’s UK website for more background information about co-operatives and click here to learn about Co-operative’s work in 2018.
- Agricultural or farmers’ co-operatives – farmers pool their resources, share equipment and/or jointly market their produce.For example, Kuapa Kokoo is a co-operative of more than 45,000 cocoa farmers in Ghana – together they have a majority share in the London-based Divine Chocolate Company. Other well-know brands that are co-operatives include Ocean Spray cranberry and grapefruit producers and Sun Maid raisin producers in the USA.
- Utility co-operatives – providing a public utility such as energy, water or telecommunications, with profits reinvested or shared with members.The USA has many utility co-ops in rural areas, such as members of the National Rural Electric Co-operative Association. Another example is The Phone Co-op in the UK.
- Credit unions or Co-operative banks – provide a financial service but are owned and controlled by their members. They often have a community development focus and offer support to small enterprises or impoverished people that larger banks may not be inclined to invest in.For example, Oikocredit has financed the Covico Co-operative to set up a food market in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire.
The following 3-minute video clip gives additional information on the role of co-operatives in the global economy.
How did co-ops come about?
People have always co-operated for mutual benefit. More formal grassroots co-operative organisations began forming in Western Europe, North America and Japan in the middle of the 19th century. However, the Rochdale Pioneers are seen as the prototype of the modern co-operative society.
This 5-minute video clip explains how the UK’s co-operative movement grew from a shop in Toad Lane, Rochdale, set up by the 28 Rochdale Pioneers in 1844. The shop is now a museum.
Why teach about co-ops?
Through their principles of shared ownership for mutual benefit, many co-operatives have been key organisations in supporting the development of fair trade, organic farming, social enterprise and ethical business. Co-operative enterprises have enabled people to work together and support themselves in moving out of poverty, rather than being dependent on aid, for example. Researching the co-operative movement and studying the work of co-operatives around the world can link in with many global issues such as trade, enterprise, workers’ rights and social justice.
Exploring the principles behind the co-operative movement can also generate discussion around issues of democracy, fairness, empowerment and student voice. Students could even develop their entrepreneurial skills by setting up a co-operatively run business such as a fair trade tuckshop.
Where to find out more…
Some great multimedia stories of Co-operatives around the world at Stories.coop.
And the International Co-operative Alliance also has a page on the History of the co-operative movement.
Photo at top of page:
Coffee Handler with Beans from Timor Cooperative – by United Nations Photo on flickr.com
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