Environmental issues are becoming more pressing for food retailers around the world, with co-ops leading the way – but in South Korea, the co-op movement is way ahead of the curve.
While retail co-ops in the UK were formed in the 19th century to provide quality products at affordable prices, green issues were the catalyst for Korea’s modern consumer co-ops, created in the 1980s to promote organic and eco friendly local products.
It was a rebirth for the national co-op movement – introduced under Japanese colonial rule in the early 20th century and faltering since the 1940s. The revival is depicted in a chapter by Kim Hyungmi in the book A Global History of Consumer Co-operation since 1850, in which he shows how consumer co-ops in Korea “originated from the concerns of urban consumers at the negative effects of the increase in imported produce and collapsing rural communities”.
In the mid-1980s, Korea faced pollution problems – while farmers suffered negative effects from pesticide use, and the country faced pressure to lift production amid low food self-sufficiency – with 23% of food home grown, compared with 45.8% today.
The modern movement began with the Barun Dure Consumers Cooperative in Anyang in 1985. It was the first of many co-ops working to protect the health of farmers and to provide safe products for consumers, by promoting organic and eco-friendly products.
Another focus is ethical consumerism; modern consumer co-ops, says Hyungmi, are called Saenghyup – which means “consumer co-operative that promotes autonomous member activities based on mutual benefits in the consumer’s daily life”.
Dure Consumer Cooperative Union
One of the co-ops working closely with the local community is Dure Consumer Cooperative Union, which covers the metropolitan area of Seoul.
Manager Jungsun Ryu says Dure was set up in 1997 by seven consumer co-ops to drive efficiency through joint purchasing, Dure Consumer Cooperative Union includes 24 member co-ops with 115 stores, 240,000 members and joint sales of 140bn won (£86m).
“We provide a common IT, logistics, and delivery infrastructure,” says Ms Ryu. “We also consider the sovereignty of members and solidarity with producers as important aspects of our identity. We support exchanges between union members and producers, and help member co-ops continue their activities in their areas by providing support for their members’ education opportunities and activities.”
The co-op maintains direct contracts with producers, she adds: this keeps prices steady in the face of market fluctuations. It also promotes ongoing exchanges between members and producers. Here, the goal is to offer “a broader understanding of each other’s situations, including sharing transparently about production system,” says Ms Ryu. “This enables consumer co-ops to trust the quality of our goods and understand the set prices.”
Dure, which employs 900 staff, was also the first retailer to introduce Fair Trade products in 2004 when in started offering muscovado sugar from the Philippines and expanded its product range in 2007.
While Fair Trade and global business are the key emphasis, Dure also values “a face-to-face relationship based on trust and understanding each other’s lives, between producer and consumer union members,” says Ms Ryu. “The expression ‘People to People Trade’ reflects the identity of the co-op as a solidarity movement with overseas producers.”
In recent years the co-op has been working to reduce waste, in response to members’ concerns. In 2018 it formed a planning team to discuss resource circulation and conducted a member survey, which revealed that the use of Styrofoam boxes was a key concern. Dure decided to provide an alternative by launching the My Box campaign, which allows members who order online to leave an icebox or an empty box in front of their door to receive products in it instead of delivery in a styrofoam box.
“Now, three years later, the campaign has become a part of our supply box policy, and 65% of supply members are participating in My Box,” says Ms Ryu.
In 2020 Dure led a campaign to encourage members to bring their unused shopping bags, paper bags, and ice packs in stores to be reused.And in 2021 it launched a campaign to collect paper cartons and send them to Burim Paper, its toilet paper production site, to be recycled.
“Not many of our own products are packaged in paper cartons,” says Ms Ryu, “but this project has made a way for us to connect in meaningful ways with local residents and groups who are participating in the campaign.”
Resource circulation is a problem that must be solved by involving producers and members, she adds. Before Covid-19 broke out, Dure had been holding discussion forums for producers and members to share their concerns regarding resource circulation. As a result of these talks, Dure trained 100 climate crisis activists to create a joint action plan for the co-op.
“Through campaigns created directly by our members, we will continue to work together so that resource recycling can be practiced in daily life rather than as one-time event, and those experiences can lead to demands for system improvement,” says Ms Ryu.
While it is not currently tracking how far the use of plastics in own brand products has decreased over the years, Dure says it is currently working on improving the packaging of its sauces. The co-op plans to continue to improve its packaging materials to reduce environmental pollution – for example, by changing its cooling agents, switching to paper tape, and minimising its use of Styrofoam.
Prompted by the Covid-19 pandemic, consumer co-ops are also starting to do more work around care giving.
“Many of the member co-ops of Dure Consumer’s Cooperative are responding to local issues jointly with civil society groups in their local areas,” says Ms Ryu.
“Dure Consumer’s Cooperative is supporting the efforts of member co-ops as they work along with civil society groups in their areas to address the issues related to care-giving that have arisen. Some groups are working with daycare centres and some with after-school care projects. We will continue to support these local efforts to meet the needs of their communities.”
After-school projects are important given the popularity of ethical consumerism among the country’s youth – a 2019 survey of Gen Z found that more than half supported it. Ms Ryu was herself a young graduate when she got involved in the sector in 2014, through a project connecting young people to social economy organisations.
“Although co-operatives are businesses that need to engage in economic activities,” she says, “I thought it was a really attractive place to see the organisation’s direction and purposeful work to restore communities and respond to the climate crisis rather than focus just on money.
“I hope Korean conglomerates and public institutions learn from co-ops.”