Co-operatives are set to become one of the fastest growing business models over the next decade, according to the Director-General of the International Co-operative Alliance.
Charles Gould told delegates at Congress in Birmingham that the International Year of Co-operatives in 2012 offers the chance to turn the world around to the way of co-operative thinking and to pave the way for a ‘co-operative decade’.
Mr Gould said that over time economic models have shifted in a cyclical pattern where co-operatives become popular until capitalism takes a hold.
He said: “Today it’s hard to remember that we didn’t always live surrounded by a corporate ideology and that, perhaps, unbridled capitalism really only began to gallop away in the 1980s — that was in response to a perceived excessive regulatory environment that in turn was itself in reaction to a period during and just after World War Two when we looked to government to take on big things.
“Prior to that we witnessed a period of the flowering of co-operatives and mutuals and labour unions, which itself grew in part from a realisation that the industrial revolution had come at too high a price.
“If we’re reading the signs correctly, and if there’s some legitimacy in this cyclical pattern of reaction to excesses of the past, then we might be at the beginning of a period that has the potential to see co-operatives respected and favoured.”
The International Year of Co-operatives — established by the United Nations — is recognised as a platform by the ICA board to establish a long-term co-operative vision.
Said Mr Gould: “The ICA global board is beginning to explore a vision that the co-operative could become, by the end of this decade, the fastest growing business model. On any given day we can find events unfolding that argue against this and we can recognise set backs along the way. But in general, the arc of history is curving in this direction.
“If this occurs it won’t just happen, and if it occurs it won’t look like the end of the 19th century, and it won’t look like today it’ll be very different.
“What would have to happen over the next decade to herald this co-operative opportunity? And are we seeing any of that? For one co-operation might replace consumerism as the dominant rhetoric.
“The prevailing business model today perceives individuals as people who consume things. Even the poor are seen as a business opportunity at the bottom of the pyramid.
“When did we become callous to this sort of imagery? The insistence of sustainability could drive this change for consumerism to be replaced by co-operation. The threat of climate change cries out for immediate collective action and each generation feels the pressure of the urgency more keenly. There is a growing confusion, or even embarrassment, around being known as a consumer.”
Speaking to delegates, Mr Gould said a co-operative decade could be accelerated if there is an increased demand for transparency — this would be an “era where the co-operative name will serve”.
Further expansion is also on the horizon for co-ops which could become more global and focus on import/export with other co-operatives. Added Mr Gould: “In this next period co-operatives could become more global. Over time the value that we place on local as a proxy for trusted will give way to increasing confidence in globally sourced products and services.
“Technology will make it practical for shoppers to identify the specific source of global products. As shoppers can today in some co-ops see the packaging in the meat aisle and see the farmer that produced it.”
Mr Gould said that the final piece to create a co-operative decade will be that co-operation is seen as a solution to key problems across the world: “We’ll see them operating increasingly in difficult sectors, the entry of Midcounties Co-operative into energy is one example of this. The Energy Saving Co-operative that is being set up in the UK is another example.
“When the US looked at solutions for what to do with Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, various governmental agencies suggested that Congress looked at constituting them as co-operatives. That recommendation hasn’t advanced any further for final approval for a variety of political reasons. But the important point is that key policy makers are looking at the most daunting problems facing the US government domestically and are recognising that the co-operative is a model that has respect as a potential solution.”
Mr Gould said that this turn to mutuality is echoed across the world: “I won’t wade into the murky waters of the Big Society rubric in the UK other than to say that governments in country after country are acknowledging that mutuality, community, co-operation and volunteerism are welcome signposts that help to show the way through this current maze.”
As a final word to delegates, the ICA Director-General added that belief in the co-operative model will create an era of co-operation: “The International Year of Co-operatives is an opening, it’s an opening that the ICA is committed to exploiting.
“If we use this year strategically, if we have a bit of luck and if members believe what the ICA board believes, that the co-operative could become the fastest growing model by the end of this decade, then we might just be able to create a blueprint that will let us pivot from a co-operative year to a co-operative decade.”