Are values the key to sustainability?

Co-operatives are better prepared to embrace sustainability. But why is that the case? One answer is the guiding values that underpin co-operation. As the International Co-operative Alliance makes...

Co-operatives are better prepared to embrace sustainability. But why is that the case? One answer is the guiding values that underpin co-operation.

As the International Co-operative Alliance makes clear, values are central to co-operation.

“Co-operatives are based on the values of self-help, self-responsibility, democracy, equality, equity and solidarity,” it says. “In the tradition of their founders, co-operative members believe in the ethical values of honesty, openness, social responsibility and caring for others.”

Values are also an essential part of sustainability. Common Cause, an organisation working to help rebalance cultural values to create a more equitable, sustainable and democratic society, has done a lot of work to draw together academic research and provide an overview of values, and how they influence us.

Fifty values have been identified that appear to be consistent across different cultures. It is possible to group these into four main categories: self-transcendent; openness to change; self-enhancement; and conservation. These can be represented in a circle.

Each of us can be motivated by values from any of these groups – and this will vary over time – but particular values tend to dominate.

Importantly, prioritising values in certain categories will also enhance other values in that category, while at the same time suppressing values in the category opposite on the circle.

For example, if you hold a self-transcendent value like ‘helpful’ you will be more likely to see other self-transcendent values as important and less likely to be directed by self-enhancement values, such as ‘ambitious’.

This matters because, when it comes to promoting sustainability, all values are not equal. Common Cause argues that any move to sustainability requires more engagement of self-transcendent values. You might get some short-term success by talking about saving money, which engages values of self-enhancement, but, if your goal is sustainability, it is detrimental in the long-term.

So, if self-transcendent values are central to sustainability, how does this link to the co-operative values?

Answering this requires some interpretation, as co-operative values don’t map exactly onto values in the Common Cause work – but it is possible to link them. Looking at the list of co-operative and common cause values below, it is not a surprise to find that most of the co-operative values link to those in the self-transcendent category and that none of them fall into the self-enhancement category.

This means co-ops do seem to have a sweet spot for sustainability, as the values that are at the heart of both are strongly linked.

For the co-operative movement, this raises the question of whether sustainability – the biggest challenge of our time – should be seen explicitly as a core part of co-operation.

Individual co-operatives need to fully embrace the values and find effective ways to translate them into action. The opportunity is there for co-operatives to be at the heart of building a better, sustainable world. The challenge is to make that happen.

Co-operative value: Self-help
Common Cause value: Independent; choosing own goals

Co-operative value: Self-responsibility
Common Cause value: Responsible; self-discipline

Co-operative value: Democracy
Common Cause value: This isn’t a value. Different interpretations of democracy could draw on very different values – social power and social justice would be two opposites. In relation to co-operation the key values are probably all the ones that are mentioned here plus: self-respect; freedom; and wisdom

Co-operative value: Equality
Common Cause value: Equality

Co-operative value: Equity
Common Cause value: Social justice

Co-operative value: Solidarity
Common Cause value: Loyal; sense of belonging.

Co-operative value: Honesty
Common Cause value: Honest

Co-operative value: Openness
Common Cause value: Broadminded; forgiving Social responsibility and caring for others Helpful; true friendship; honouring of elders; protecting the environment; a world at peace, unity with nature (this list could be longer)

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