The Co-op News Big Debate: How co-ops show concern for communities

'Co-operatives also have a long history and proud tradition of meeting social needs by delivering services such as health, housing, education, social services...'

Concern for the community has always been on the agenda for co-operatives.

And it can happen in two different ways: Co-operatives as businesses may work with communities to solve local problems, for example through fundraising, providing grants or volunteers. Alternatively, organisations such as the Plunkett Foundation provide the means for communities to come together in a co-operative structure to solve their problems, which could be setting up a new bus service or running a local village store.

Either way, Concern for Community is the seventh co-operative principle. And while the International Co-operative Alliance only formally adopted it in 1995, the community has always been a part of a co-op’s ethos.

Co-operatives today are already making changes and creating positive impacts on the communities that they serve. Last year, the Community Impact Index, published by Co-operative News, showed the top nine retail co-ops gave 10% of their profits to the community – compared with just 4.5% for corporate rivals.

Co-ops have had a head start and can afford to give more back to the community. But today it’s relatively normal for companies to have similar social values to co-ops.

In the late 1990s, the Global Reporting Initiative set about its mission to educate traditional businesses about the importance of social responsibility. As part of its remit, the body has set the standards for sustainability reporting.

Those standards are in use around the world – and recently, GRI interviewed some business and social responsibility leaders to imagine what will be necessary for sustainability in 2025.

One of the primary outcomes from the research is the need to be collaborative. In its Sustainability and Reporting Trends in 2025 report, it says a new generation of growth and development models will be at the centre of discussions in the next decade.

In the report, it said: “The most mentioned models were the circular economy, shared economy, collaborative economy and green economy as references in the discussions around solutions in the next decade.

“New concepts for energy production (e.g. decentralisation) and the need to develop environmentally friendly energy models were mentioned as an ingredient needed in the models of the next decade, to tackle climate change, increasing demand for clean energy and promote production decentralisation and wider access.”

The need to work collaboratively was also recognised by Marina Migliorato, head of corporate social responsibility at Spanish energy company Enel. In the interview, she said: “We need to partner together – business, governments and all other players – because the problems that we will face in the next decade will be crucial. The solution will be global: we need global actions from the diverse stakeholders in our society because it will be extremely challenging to achieve these important goals in the few years we have.”

The impact of a business on its community is worth noting, according to the report. It says “there is a perception that the next decade’s innovation boost will probably be driven by the need to tackle real, concrete and urgent social, environmental, governance and other issues, and may be inspired by the desire to design new business models”.

Paul Simpson, chief executive of CDP, which encourages investors to support a sustainable economy, said: “We’ve been valuing companies for hundreds of years by looking at their profit. Currency, of course, is still one measure of value – it’s the quantitative value, and it’s easy to measure. But we know that, in our rapidly changing world, approaching or exceeding planetary boundaries and reaching a population of 9 billion by 2050, the winning companies of the future will be generating value in different ways.”

The guidance notes which accompany the Co-op Principles outline how and why co-operatives have concern for the community.

“Co-operatives are characterised by and proud of the fact they are rooted in local communities,” says the document.

“They are set up by the people to meet their common economic needs within communities for buying quality food and services at an affordable price, marketing local produce and creating local jobs, obtaining credit and insurance and other services.

“Limited only by their financial capacity to do so, many co-operatives have demonstrated a remarkable capacity to care for others and have made significant contributions to the human and financial resources of their communities.

“Co-operatives also have a long history and proud tradition of meeting social needs by delivering services such as health, housing, education, social services, integrating people who are socially disadvantaged into work, and helping community development.”

  • If you’re attending this year’s Co-op Congress in Wakefield, join us for our Big Debate on Friday 30 June at Unity Works (2.30pm) or read the report after the event:

How do co-ops do this and put it into action? Read our three case studies looking at the social issues that co-ops help solve for communities:

The Platform – helping put people back into work

Providing key healthcare services: employee-owned City Health Care Partnership

Lincolnshire Co-operative: supporting local libraries to build community hubs

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