Co-operatives UK’s publication, The UK co-operative economy 2012: Alternatives to austerity, has improved year-on-year since I first got my hands on the 2009 edition. It has gradually become more detailed and interesting. It ceases simply to be a dry record of co-operative performance and has morphed into a manifesto for the co-operative ideal.
This year’s stats throw up some issues that need more analysis and debate amongst the movement:
The number of new co-operatives emerging has been increasing steadily for two years and can be attributed to the quality and quantity of co-op development being undertaken in the UK. It is no surprise that this improvement has been matched by an increased focus on the fifth co-operative principle: education, training and information. We now need to examine how we can stimulate further co-op development by identifying new education channels (university curricula and student enterprises spring to mind).
The movement has a lot of small co-operatives (65% have a turnover of <£250,000) and a stable segment of large co-operatives (12.5% have >£1,000,000). What becomes apparent is the ‘missing middle’, co-operatives that are more medium than small. This opens up debates relating to growth issues for co-ops (lack of capital, increasing divergence of business and member aims, member apathy etc). Perhaps this ‘missing middle’ issue could be addressed by promoting the Enterprise co-op model. Many organisations have an optimum level, whether in terms of membership, revenue, market share etc. By combining through Enterprise co-ops, organisations can redefine their optimum levels and achieve scale. Mondragón and Emilia Romagna come to mind as successful examples of this strategy in action.
There are 3 times more co-op members than direct shareholders in the world. An interesting statistic but this is an average; far more interesting is the disparity between different continents. Asia/Pacific has 5 times as many co-op members than shareholders, ditto Africa. On the other hand, Europe has only twice as many members than shareholders. What are the reasons for this? A preliminary hypothesis would be that Europe is more advanced economically and so co-operatives, in their poverty reduction guise, are not needed as much. How then do we, the UK movement, promote co-ops if they are not too relevant as a poverty-reduction vehicle? One approach is to appeal to the ethical-consumer base but I believe that the greatest gains can be achieved by espousing co-ops as a more common sense approach for businesses/entrepreneurs.