Co-operative Congress debate 2: How co-ops can keep leading the way

Each year, at Co-operative Congress, the co-operative movement comes together to look at how to move the sector forward. In 2015 CEOs and directors, members and employees gathered...

Each year, at Co-operative Congress, the co-operative movement comes together to look at how to move the sector forward. In 2015 CEOs and directors, members and employees gathered in Birmingham on 26-27 June for CoopNow, organised by Co-operatives UK to debate two key issues: how co-operatives should finance growth; and how co-ops can keep leading the way.

The second debate, on leading the way, looked at how co-ops can assert themselves as leaders in terms of sustainability.

Among delegates pitching ideas was Diego Isable from the Association for the Promotion of the Economy for the Common Good. He called on co-ops to drive systemic change by co-operation with other organisations and movements aimed at building a new economy.

His think tank proposes a model where enterprises shift away from striving to increase profits towards increasing the common good, or well-being of the entire population. A lot of co-ops are doing this already, he said.

John Hughes of St John’s Sunshine, a small voluntary solar community co-op in Old Trafford, Manchester, proposed that co-ops pledge to become fossil-free by 2030. “At national level there is a movement for change that we should sign up for. When you share the values, people get that the model works,” he said.

But some delegates feared it would be too expensive. Kathryn Rose, chair of the national youth committee of the Co-operative Party, said becoming fossil-free might not be an immediate priority for some co-ops due to the high costs.

“Examples like Old Trafford, with the community coming together, is a good model, that’s within the reach of everybody. We can do something locally,” she said.

Bob Cannell of Suma Wholefoods added: “Some of this technology is going to be very expensive. Already in London big companies are running electric vans because they can afford to run them.

“If co-operative businesses who run trucks in large numbers got together, then we could share that buying power for things like electric vehicles, so that we would not be left out of the loop.”

Co-operatives UK chair Nick Matthews said innovation was the answer and suggested designing fossil-free co-ops from the outset.

Another proposal was for a network of co-operators to facilitate action across co-ops in line with the International Co-operative Alliance’s Blueprint for a Co-operative Decade, which includes a strategy for co-ops to become acknowledged leaders in sustainability by 2020.

Steven Glynn from Sustainable Change suggested a network to facilitate implementation, develop training and share good practices.

“By having that level of ambition it forces you to think from bottom up, to think differently,” he said.

Delegates also looked at how the movement could engage with youth.

Phil Frampton of FC United and Co-operative Business Consultants said sustainability was also about supporting the co-operative environment. Pointing to FC United’s measures to help youth get involved and organise events, he suggested a youth version of Congress.

Rhiannon Colvin from Altgen, which helps young people set up co-ops, said all the co-ops they helped set up were focused on sustainability. She said it was important to have young people taking part in the Congress and not segregate them in a youth version.

Other pitches included a radical campaign to extend democracy into economic institutions, working together to develop business metrics, increasing support for Fairtrade and funding an environmental audit.

Asked to vote for their three favourite pitches, delegates chose: a network of people to learn from each other; doing more to engage young people in co-operatives and promote sustainability among them; and having co-op declare themselves fossil-free by 2030.

Delegates will be now taking back the pitches to their co-operatives to see how these could be implemented.

Click here for debate 1: How should co-ops finance growth

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