UK co-operatives can help create a decade of co-operation, according to the President of the International Co-operative Alliance.
At the National Retail Consumer Conference in Solihull, Dame Pauline Green presented the ICA’s strategy document, the Blueprint for a Co-operative Decade, which lays the groundwork for co-operatives to be the fastest growing form of enterprise by 2020.
The former Chief Executive of Co-operatives UK told delegates that co-operators around the world take notice of actions and initiatives that happen in the UK. She said: “The British Movement, and the retail movement that leads it, has long had a very disproportionate influence on all sorts of areas of co-operative activity, because we’re not the largest movement in the world.”
In reference to the rebrand of co-operative food stores across most societies to The Co-operative, Dame Pauline commented: “We influence when we take new decisions, such as branding. I can tell you that the branding exercise had a huge impact across the world. It’s important that you understand that because what you do does ripple around the world.
“It really touched a very key point with co-operatives around the world. The work of the 900 electric co-ops in the US to move to a single brand, Touchstone, was a direct result of the Group’s work in the UK.”
In support of the Blueprint, Dame Pauline said co-operatives are still not well-enough understood around the world and this is the aim of the new strategy. She told delegates: “We need the equal promotion of the co-operative model of business with other incorporated businesses in the world. We’ve had decades of the predominance of the company or corporation model. It is time that when people advocate business that they advocate our businesses too.”
Dame Pauline called for retail societies to take advantage of the co-operative model. She said: “Our businesses are known as being the most participatory form of governance that there is at the moment. This is an area of competitive advantage for co-operatives.
“Yet people are seeking an increased voice. They feel disconnected from the economic and social models that have dominated their lives. Our co-operatives give a voice. In order to maintain engagement, to exploit this competitive advantage we need to embrace new forms of participation to redefine the member experience with the co-operative. We need to use new media and the internet to revitalise the democratic dimension of governance. Consumer co-operatives know that consumers are increasingly seeking multiple shopping channels.”
The ICA President encouraged co-operatives to embrace new technology and new ways of thinking: “We all know our challenges — do we get in stuck in there and lead or do we follow? The nature of engagement is changing and we just need to look at our membership engagement as far as governance participation is concerned.
“People expect a tailored experience. They know how to use social media, they know how to find information. They are no longer reliant on institutions to provide information to them. We need to take advantage of technology to move to a post-bureaucratic form of participation. The challenge for us in governance terms is, can we find ways of using new technology to open up the discussion of governance to a wider public without jeopardising the membership rights to decide on what happens in their co-operatives.
“Can we actually energise and excite the young by involving them in these discussions by using social media more widely? We know that what the young want is to have a voice; to have an impact; and to build a more just and fairer economy. Are we able to take them and embrace them in the co-operative model of business by offering them a chance to engage and pour into our governance procedures without jeopardising our ownership rights.”
In summary, Dame Pauline told delegates that the ICA was not willing to let the momentum of the International Year of Co-operatives end and that it’s encouraging the United Nations has endorsed the Blueprint for a Co-operative Decade.
She added: “We are at a critical juncture in co-op history. Will we continue to hold an important, but contained role in the global economy and fighting for recognition of our contribution? Will we continue to be under recognised, undervalued and underappreciated and under achieving in our potential impact?
“Or using the foundation given to us by the IYC, can we use the exposure of the limits of other models of business, can we use the global desire for sustainability to raise co-operative awareness and impact and to step up to take our full and rightful place in the global economy. It’s our belief that we can, but it’s you that’s going to make it happen.”
• To view the Blueprint, visit: www.ica.coop/blueprint