Co-operatives doing business with other co-operatives is one of three key ways in which the sector's contribution to the economy can be ambitiously and dramatically increased, a conference heard.
At the annual Future Co-operatives conference, delegates charged themselves with identifying ways in which the share of the UK's GDP created by co-operative businesses — ethical companies owned by their workers or their customers, rather than external investors or shareholders — could be increased from two to 20 per cent by the end of the century.
The findings have been published in a new action plan called From 2 to 20 by Co-operative Futures, the business development consultancy responsible for helping people set up co-operatives in Gloucestershire, Wiltshire, Oxfordshire and the West Midlands.
Setting the scene, Co-operative Futures director Jim Pettipher reminded the 77 delegates — representing co-operatives from the length and breadth of the UK— that there are roughly 5,500 co-operative businesses in Britain, and 12.8 million people are a member of a co-operative.
Yet just over 250 years of investment and activity have delivered a co-operative economy that is estimated at only two percent of GDP. “We want to see the UK co-op sector grow ambitiously and dramatically as a portion of gross domestic product,” he said.
Keeping the wealth within the sector was determined by delegates to be one of the simplest ways in which co-operative businesses could help the co-operative economy to grow. Individual co-operative businesses, the conference heard, could make small gestures like holding their account with the Co-operative Bank, switching to Co-operative Energy for electricity, and making the Phone Co-op their telecommunications supplier.
The conference also decided that co-operatives must do more to promote what co-operative businesses are, and what they stand for. While the Co-operative Group has created a super-brand, there is a general assumption that all co-operative businesses are part of the group, the conference heard.
Independent co-operative businesses needed to be ambassadors and shout about the diversity of the sector — from village shops and pubs to wind farms, housing associations and credit unions — while all co-operatives should actively promote the values of democracy, equality, social responsibility and the highest ethical standards in conducting business, including the sector's place at the vanguard of the organic and Fairtrade movements.
And brand ambassadors needed to look outside the sector, taking the message of co-operation to groups like the Federation of Small Businesses and Chambers of Commerce, and to business consultants, accountants and lawyers who helped people establish new companies.
Finally, the creation of a co-operative has to be as straightforward as possible. It is hoped that the recently announced Co-operative Consolidation Act, which brings together around 60 laws governing co-operatives into a single statute, will simply the formation of new co-ops.
Meanwhile, a wealth of help and advice is readily available from co-operative development agencies like Co-operative Futures, and in many cases assistance is provided free-of-charge to the business founder through the Co-operative Enterprise Hub.
• Click here to read the action plan, or see the special supplement, below, printed in Co-operative News.