Co-op values in the modern world

'It is your commitment to co-operative culture that makes you part of the wider co-op movement'

It may seem like the soft side of business, but values are at the heart of every example of co-operative excellence – and core to the advisory work of Co-operatives UK.

The International Co-operative Alliance has codified 10 values – six co-operative and four ethical. The co-operative values – self-help, self-responsibility, democracy, equality, equity, solidarity – describe the design of the business. The ethical values – honesty, openness, social responsibility, caring for others – describe its operation.

Alongside these are seven principles – three on how co-op ownership should be structured, three on co-op culture and one on the independence of the business as a democratic enterprise. As Sion Whellens of Calverts Worker Co-op says, while the structure and independence of ownership makes you a co-op, it is your commitment to co-operative culture that makes you part of the wider co-op movement.

The evolution of the values is in itself a fascinating example of deliberation within a social movement. The list emerged from an extensive global dialogue, with around 10,000 meetings around the world. One of the key figures involved in that process, Professor Ian MacPherson, said the list “does not induce tidy uniformity… the application of ‘honesty’ can vary across different cultures and kinds of co-operatives.

Openness depends as much on social relations within a given society and the management culture of a given co-operative as it does on generally accepted accounting standards. The point is that values, while they can have some similar characteristics around the world, also vary greatly in kinds of understanding and ways of being expressed.”

Academic research on values tends to support this. The European and World Values Survey draws on a framework applicable to every culture around the world, even if every culture will have its own very different emphasis and inflections. The co-operative components of these surveys are what Co-operatives UK has used in widely cited work to track public attitudes in relation to co-operative values.

Of course, co-ops come in all shapes and sizes, and this is also true for what they do in terms of values. The research centre EURICSE interviewed opinion leaders in the sector in 2013. They said that, while co-ops worldwide tend to be strict on their structure, they are looser in terms of culture. Many fail to fulfil at least one of the seven co-operative principles – the least complied with being the commitment to education, training and information.

Related: How to generate and nurture a strong co-operative culture

So, to explore this, Co-operatives UK set out to research two dozen co-operatives worldwide. Each one does communicate values of some kind. The global value most commonly promoted is ‘social responsibility’, followed by reference to democracy and then openness. The least cited were self-help, solidarity and caring for others.

The impact of the co-operative sector having a global set of values is hard to test, but there is some evidence to suggest that businesses with distinctive values may act in distinctive ways. The global values offer a prompt, or default, for co-ops that can be a reference point for its members. In France, co-ops are now required to conduct an independent audit for members at least once every five years to assess their co-operative difference.

In many countries, ethical values are core to the brand values of co-ops. Ethical Consumer magazine, which draws on an extensive database of ethical screening, states that co-operative businesses are in the top third of ethical performers in 80% of the markets that they surveyed, and are the top performers in 23% of markets.

Co-operatives UK has championed the role of values and culture across the UK economy. A recent and notable success has been the introduction of values and purpose by the Financial Reporting Council into the new governance code for all listed businesses. Of course, it is easy to proclaim values but do little to live up to them or to set an ethical purpose and use it only for marketing, and arguably many corporates do this, but the move will put more scrutiny on those companies and it helps to point to co-ops as best practice.

A World Values Day has been established, with our input, and takes place this year on 18 October 2018:

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