If ‘co-operative’ were an item of clothing, what would it be? According to American fashion chain Urban Outfitters it would be a girly dress, probably with polka dots, inspired by French actresses.
The firm describes its Cooperative range as an urban exclusive label, with a refined sense of girlish style. “Polka-dots, Breton stripes and whimsical prints adorn feminine shirts, clean line dresses and flirty skirts,” its marketing blurb says. “With a nod to nostalgic, retro influences, each Cooperative creation is simple and clean in design but oozes naïve and quirky charm.”
What it fails to mention are the brand’s co-operative credentials. An Urban Outfitters spokesperson confirmed there are none: “Our Cooperative brand is only a name,” they said. “It has no involvement with any co-operation at design or production.”
The chain has gone so far as to register ‘co-operative’ with the British Intellectual Property Office (IPO), covering its use on over 60 clothing and fashion items from bags and purses to key rings and sunglasses.
“I absolutely hope this is something that Co-operatives UK will pursue,” says Bryony Moore of Ethical Consumer magazine, who is also co-founder of ethical fashion co-operative Stitched Up. “Genuine co-operatives work incredibly hard to do what they do because they believe there’s a better way to do business.
“A multinational company using the word ‘co-operative’ as a brand name is frankly insulting. Especially for Stitched Up, whose central mission is to provide an alternative to the current fashion industry model, which is exploitative on so many levels.”
Co-operatives UK describes the Cooperative brand as a “cheap fashion shot” and an attempt to cash in on everything the co-operative movement stands for. It is calling on Urban Outfitters to explain why it carries the name on what is not a true co-operative label.
Research by YouGov on behalf of Co-operatives UK shows that 62% of 18 to 24 year olds, Urban Outfitters’ target market, understand what a co-operative business is, ie owned by its members, giving them an equal say in how the business is run and a share of the profits.
Nearly half of this age group (46%) associate co-ops with the word ‘ethical’, and over a third (39%) make a clear link between co-ops and ‘honest’.
Ed Mayo, secretary general of Co-operatives UK says: “It’s fantastic that young adults are in tune with what co-operatives are all about. We want to secure a bright future for our movement, so of course we want co-operatives to be ‘in vogue’ and talked about by twenty-somethings. After all, they’re the co-operators of tomorrow.
“However, co-operation isn’t just a fashion, it’s not like a pair of leg-warmers, it’s a movement that goes back centuries and one that’s here to stay. We’re concerned that Urban Outfitters is trading off something that young people are familiar with, and do like, without contributing to the actual co-operative movement in any way.
“It would seem Urban Outfitters is trying to capitalise on the work of one billion co-operators worldwide, which we think is just a cheap fashion shot.”
For clothing and fashion co-operatives there is another concern. This registration means that using the word ‘Cooperative’ to brand clothing or accessories could be subject to a licensing agreement with Urban Outfitters, which could include a fee.
Sarah Webb, partner and intellectual property specialist at Anthony Collins Solicitors, says that co-operatives need not be alarmed. “From a purely commercial perspective, it’s unlikely that Urban Outfitters would launch a series of trademark infringement claims against co-operatives,” she says.
However, there is still a cause for concern: “The pre-action protocol relevant to specialist intellectual property proceedings would place an obligation on Urban Outfitters to approach an organisation using the co-operative brand before taking legal action. In the majority of cases, parties are able to reach an out of court settlement.”
But, she adds, the successful registration does illustrate that the co-operative movement needs to prioritise exploring ways it can protect its long established brand, nationally and globally. “The Co-operative Group, Co-operatives UK and the movement should join forces to look at a global brand strategy,” she says. “In the context of the protection of the co-operative brand, there should be no conflict of interest between these organisations.”
In what is a complex legal area, the Co-operative Group has already registered ‘Co-operative’ along with ‘The Co-operative’ through the Intellectual Property Office for a wide range of classes from food to funerals. Co-operative Brands Ltd is the custodian of the brands for the movement.
While many nouns cannot be trademarked because they are ‘descriptive’, ‘co-operative’ is different, says the Group’s head of brand governance and standards, Kristian Mills. “We’re allowed to trademark the word co-operative because of the history of the co-operative movement, because it goes back such a long way,” he says.
“If there’s a true co-operative that calls itself a co-op, we wouldn’t stop them from using this as part of their brand identity, as long as it’s not trying to pass itself off as The Co-operative. But we do work to protect the brand.”
‘The Co-operative’ trademark is licensed for free to other co-ops that “add value to the Co-operative brand”, and which stick to its brand guidelines. Mr Mills calls this the halo effect, something which increases the strength of the brand, and its visibility.
Urban Outfitters, with 176 stores in the US, 12 in Canada and 27 in the UK, plus stores in Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Ireland, the Netherlands and Sweden, not to mention a global online presence, is no stranger to controversy. In 2011 it stopped using ‘Navajo’ to label over 20 products, including a hip flask and underwear, after the Navajo Nation threatened to sue.
The products were disrespectful and a trademark violation, the Navajo Nation said. The tribe holds a range of trademarks on its name in the USA and has pursued other retailers for infringement. It licenses its name to some businesses in exchange for a share of their profits.
In 2012, Urban Outfitters caused more upset with Saint Patrick’s Day t-shirts which depicted Irish and Irish-Americans as drunkards; a greetings card which offended transgender people; and a T-shirt featuring a six-pointed star which, it was claimed, strongly resembled the star Jews were made to wear during the Holocaust.
Later that year, president of the Human Rights Foundation Thor Halvorssen published an open letter to Urban Outfitters urging it to stop selling clothing featuring Che Guevara. He claimed it romanticised a tyrant who suppressed individual freedom and murdered challengers.
In each of these cases, Urban Outfitters removed the offending merchandise from its stores, or redesigned it to remove the offence.
Co-operatives UK is now calling on Urban Outfitters to donate some of the profits from its ‘Cooperative’ clothing range to the Global Development Co-operative. The organisation aims to support co-operative enterprises in developing countries by raising $50m to provide access to low cost loans for capital and infrastructure projects.
“I’m sure support from Urban Outfitters would be gratefully received by the Global Development Co-operative,” adds Ed Mayo. “I’d also like to extend an invitation to the team at Urban Outfitters to see some real co-operatives at work here in the UK. I’d be more than happy to introduce them to some of our members.”
• What do you think? Can a non-co-operative use the co-operative name? Leave your comment below.