The United Nations has declared 2012 the International Year of Cooperatives, recognising an alternative economic model combining productivity and social responsibility.
Cooperatives first appeared in the mid-19th century in Britain, spurred by tensions born of the industrial revolution. Today they comprise more than one billion members around the world and employ more than 100 million people.
In recent years, their turnover has exceeded €1,000 billion (SFr1,214 billion) in sectors as varied as industry, trade, agriculture, banking and insurance. Their activities range from cocoa fields in the developing world to football teams like FC Barcelona, snake hunters in India and parmesan cheese producers in Italy.
In Switzerland there are more than 9,600 cooperatives. Just to give one example, over half the population is a member either of the Coop or Migros, supermarket cooperatives which between them control more than 50 per cent of the retail market in the country. Then there is the Raiffeisen Bank – with its 1.7 million members – the Mobiliar insurance company and the Fenaco agricultural group.