Co-ops must act to save the planet, Lord Adebowale tells Practitioners Forum

'We have to grow faster than business as usual in order to influence the economy and the politics that drive it'

‘Business as usual’ is going to kill the planet, according to Lord Victor Adebowale, and it is up to co-operatives, social enterprises and associated organisations to change the future.

Lord Adebowale, who chairs Social Enterprise UK, is chief executive of the social care enterprise Turning Point and sits on the board of the Co-op Group, opened the Practitioners Forum, where he told delegates that their different way of doing business was the future.

He highlighted how shocks to the economy, including the 2008 financial crisis, have meant that every survey for the last decade shows public opinion of business going the wrong direction.

“People don’t trust business,” he said. “They don’t trust business leaders and they don’t trust the notion of business. This is worrying, as business is important to society – but the future of society relies on new models of business.”

The public is looking for a new vision, he said. “But we’re it! The co-op economy contributes more to GDP than the country’s entire agriculture sector. The top five co-ops pay more UK tax than Google, Apple, Amazon and Starbucks combined. The UK’s 11th largest taxpayer is Nationwide.”

He believes that younger generations know that their future does not and cannot rely on ‘business as usual’. Instead, business will be about helping people and their communities thrive.

Related: Co-op sector responds to climate change report

“We are standing on a burning platform,” said Lord Adebowale. “We don’t have the luxury of time. Business as usual is going to kill the planet. We have to grow faster than business as usual in order to influence the economy and the politics that drive it.

“These are big issues, and we have to succeed. Our kids depend on it. It means delivery of real business results.”

He highlighted how the emergence of businesses ‘for good’ shows that ‘business as usual’ recognises the positive difference co-op can make. “We need to understand and protect what that difference is, and understand why they want to be us.”

Part of that difference, he said, lies in the co-op values and principles, and their practical application. On membership and democracy, he challenged delegates: “You have to get people who aren’t in this room to join. We think democracy is the same as voting. It’s not – it’s the process of debate. We have to take the debate out there and we have to use language that is understandable outside of this room.”

He believes that in terms of education, “we haven’t achieved anything until people leaving business schools know what a co-operative business is. We need to change how economics and MBAs are taught. We need to teach how co-ops are led with the culture and values of the business in mind.”

He also noted how, according to the UN, the UK’s government’s austerity measures inflicted “great misery” on its people. “It’s cruel,” said Lord Adebowale. “If we’re not part of the solution, what’s the point? If we can’t provide a solution for people at the sharp end of the economic scale, what are we doing.”

He added: “We are standing on the edge of the future. The energy that that should provide us with should be tremendous, there is no better energy than the future. The future is precious, it’s not a game, isn’t not something that can be put to one side. Success is the difference between a good society for our kids and business as usual.

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