How important is co-operative Principle 7 when it comes to sustainability? Guidance notes on the co-op principles launched at the recent International Co-operative Alliance global conference offer a clear view of what Principle 7 should mean. Following Dame Pauline Green’s words that this should be a ‘living’ document, how could this guidance grow?
Principle 7 – “Co-operatives work for the sustainable development of their communities through policies approved by their members”
(The Alliance, 2015)
Why it matters
Introduced in 1995, the seventh co-operative principle plays a key role in situating co-operatives within the wider world. The first five principles are concerned with internal operations, making clear what is required of any organisation claiming to be a co-operative. Principle 6 then draws an individual co-operative into a wider movement, aiming to encourage mutual support. Principle 7 then requires co-operatives to look outwards, ensuring that in focusing on benefits for members, the impacts on non-members are not ignored.
Defining ‘sustainable development’
The new guidance focuses on the need to consider “economic, social and environmental sustainability”, arguing that they tend to reinforce each other, “in that concern for social and environmental sustainability makes business sense”. All three aspects should be considered, but there are problems with the Alliance’s guidance as it stands. The primary issue is that there should be a sense of priority in thinking of environmental, social and economic aspects. To put it bluntly, if we continue to degrade the planet then, with all the good intentions in the world, social and economic sustainability is a pipe dream. This approach of treating the three elements as equal and overlapping (figure 1) is commonplace. The problem here is that with no sense of priority it becomes easy to make trade-offs – ‘this action might be bad for the natural world but it brings economic benefits’ – that perpetuate unsustainable behaviour. For co-ops, it could be argued that there is a different approach, where economic matters are embedded within social ones (figure 2) and this overlaps with the natural world. Although an improvement, the natural world is still separate and to advance sustainability we need to adopt a new view of the world that sees both society and the economy as part of the natural world (figure 3).
The new guidance doesn’t question the tendency to give primacy to the ‘economic’ and, indeed, even reflects this bias. For example, each time the three aspects are written, ‘economic’ is first.
The guidance is clear that Principle 7 “places the primary emphasis on concern for the sustainable development of their immediate local communities within which co-operatives operate”. It recognises that it is this concern for immediate communities that gave birth to co-operatives. However, the world has changed and communities need to be considered slightly differently. It is absolutely the case that co-ops should be doing what they can to facilitate sustainability in their locality, but that has to be situated within a broader context. Communities and co-ops can be defined in multiple ways – the members, the location where the co-op operates, the co-operative movement etc. All are inter-linked and often the boundaries are fuzzy. Certainly co-ops should be grounded in their locality, but if Principle 7 focuses on this to the exclusion of other communities the impact is lessened.
Following the notion that both society and the economy are nested within the natural world, this can be taken further. When we consider community there is a tendency to focus on the human elements, but, as American writer, lecturer and environmental activist Gary Snyder says, “nature is not a place to visit – it is home”. The natural world is part of our communities, and finding ways of recognising this and giving it a central place in our thinking is essential for sustainability. How we do this is a real challenge. A radical approach for co-ops would be to bring the natural world into the model and potentially consider it part of the membership. How would that work? How would the natural world be represented? There needs to be dialogue around these questions but unless the natural world is given a more central role the danger is that, for all the good intentions, it still loses out when decisions have to be made.
The guidance also falls short in its ambition. There is an overemphasis on looking back, highlighting various international events where co-ops have discussed sustainability, and not enough exploring of what sustainability might actually mean in practice. The document talks of “all co-operatives having a responsibility and duty to consider and reduce their co-operative’s environmental impact” and suggests that “best practice requires that co-operatives should report on how they impact on economic, environmental and social sustainability”. But responsibility should go much further than simply reducing impacts: it should be about working to become a restorative enterprise. Leading not following. Reporting does have a role to play but there can be too much focus on accounting for accountings sake. What really matters for a co-op is being clear about what is to be achieved and making sure sustainability is reflected in the day-to-day business. True sustainability requires a move out of our comfort zone and a reconsideration of how we look at the world, and how the world looks at us. By not reflecting this, the guidance underplays the deep challenges that sustainability poses, and to which Principle 7 should help us address.
It is important that this new guidance has been written and a debt of gratitude is extended to those involved in this achievement. It is a real opportunity to open up debate and to think about where co-ops, and the movement as a whole, need to consider doing things differently. Finding approaches to restoring the natural world that enable humans to flourish is the great challenge of our time and one where co-ops are well placed to take a lead. To make this a reality, the sector must have the confidence to question how it does things and provide a space where this can happen.