Shaz Rahman is a sustainability advocate and campaigner who is passionate about the role co-operatives can play in creating a fairer future. He campaigns on issues of social justice, the climate emergency and sustainability and in 2020 was elected to the board of Co-op Press by the individual members. He writes online at shaziety.com
How did you find out about co-ops?
At university I was interested in social justice issues and did a lot of campaigning for Oxfam Outreach and the Ethical Trade Society, which are big advocates of Fairtrade. I started looking at what that meant and why it was important.
When I left university, I ended up with a job at a big corporation, but also wanted to get involved with something more local to me. Through a friend, I found out about Birmingham Friends of the Earth, which is a community benefit society that campaigns for a more sustainable Birmingham. Through them I continued campaigning around social justice and environmental issues – and also learned about the structure of co-ops, how they work and why they’re better.
From there I got involved with the Co-op Party, which fits easily with my values. One reason that Labour, as an organisation, has a lot of problems is because it’s such a broad church; the Co-op Party has more of a defined identity and I like that.
What kinds of co-operatives are you involved with now?
Since about 2011, if there’s a co-op that I believe in, and I feel I have the capacity to join or have something to offer, I will. I’m a director of
Birmingham Friends of the Earth, Community Energy Birmingham, Birmingham Film Co-op and now Co-op Press, and am chair of the Central England Co-operative Western Membership and Community Council. I’m also a member of Revolver, Midcounties, Shared Interest, Citysave Credit Union, the Co-op Party and Leicestershire Low Carbon Co-op.
What is it that draws you to co-ops and co-operation?
I grew up in a deprived area of Birmingham and I now live in a different deprived area of the same city. I graduated from Birmingham University in 2009 and completed my masters in 2010, just as austerity came in. At the time, I was struggling to get a job, I had first-hand experience of it. When I got involved in co-ops and understood that actually you don’t have to have boom or bust, but can all work together and therefore all win together, it was a bit of a revelation. I’d only really seen that in the charity sector before but in the co-op sector it had a different feel.
In charities, somebody helps you and you are helped; it’s not an equal relationship. Through the co-operative ‘one member, one vote’ principle, everybody has a say. And what that means is that even if I may not be able to individually tell the Co-op Group what to do for example, I can find people who have similar values. We are all trying to go in the same direction and in my experience all want the same things. We want to fight climate change. We want to reduce the gender pay gap. We want to have equality for people who are ethnic minorities and for people who are LGBTQ+.
We may argue about petty details, but the co-op movement is able to encompass lots of different things into an organisational structure and shared goal. We know that if we work together, we’ll be better off.
What are the challenges and opportunities ahead for co-operation?
The co-op movement has always done excellent things, but to a relative newcomer, it feels niche; if you’re ‘in’ it, you’re dedicated to it. But for many members, they may shop at a co-op and receive a dividend, but it doesn’t go beyond that. Covid-19 is obviously awful, but one thing it has done is bring into focus the way society acts and has acted for the past 40-50 years. For example, people very quickly came to realise that they don’t need to make a six- hour round trip by car to attend a 45 minute meeting. This context provides an opportunity to show why the co-op movement is better, at a time when everybody is re-evaluating their lives.
The 2020 Co-op Economy Report from Co-ops UK highlighted that co-operative new starts are almost twice as likely to survive the first five years – it’s common sense to make the business case for co-operation heard more widely. I get very frustrated about short termism; but the co-op
movement does generally look longer term than most. The structure allows thinking beyond ‘we need to make a profit for our shareholders’;
co-op members have the opportunity for emotional buy-in. I think there’s a massive opportunity for the co-op movement to say: ‘We’re here. We do better in the long term. Let’s make the world take notice of us more’.
You were recently elected as a Co-op Press director by individual members. What led to this point?
Two years ago I joined the Member and Community Council (MCC) of Central England Co-op. Every other co-op I was involved in up to that point was about sustainability, campaigning and changing society. Central England is a retail society first; so for example it looks at sustainability as a business issue as well as a social issue, As part of that role, and to learn more, I attended Congress, organised by Co-operatives UK. I needed to understand more about the wider movement, why it is important and, ultimately, how it can contribute to a more sustainable world.
I spoke to someone at the Co-op News stand – it was clear that the magazine has a very important job and would help me learn about the co-op movement as a movement as opposed to a campaigning arm, through objective journalism. I joined as a digital member, and this year was very happy to be elected as a director by the individual members.
What is your hope for Co-op Press in the future?
Co-op Press serves active members of co-ops very well. It reports on co-operative news brilliantly, but what I think it lacks is the nuance to try to draw new people in. Obviously there is a balance to be struck, but I do feel that one of the weaknesses of the co-op movement as a whole is that it doesn’t attract new members. In the UK, I’m not seeing younger co-operators or ethnic variety in the membership. I’m not seeing the LGBTQ+ community represented, or even women in some instances.
Sometimes it feels like it’s the same – often older – people doing the same things – and while those people are amazing and should be celebrated, if the co-op movement wants to survive in the next 10, 20, 30, 40 years, we need to embrace and actively encourage new members too. What Co-op Press does is fantastic, but it’s sometimes too insular. We need to be saying to people: ‘The co-op movement is fantastic! Look at us! This is why you should be a co-operator’.