Co-op identity: ‘With mission and purpose we can move mountains’

A conversation with Martin Lowery
and Alexandra Wilson

What makes a co-op a co-op? The co-operative identity has set co-ops apart from other businesses since the Rochdale Pioneers laid out their guiding principles. These principles evolved with society and a changing world – and the discussion took its most recent turn at the World Cooperative Congress which explored the idea of ‘deepening’ our co-operative identity. 

Two of the people continuing the conversation are International Cooperative Alliance (ICA) board members Martin Lowery (chair of the ICA’s Identity Committee) and Alexandra Wilson (chair of the Cooperative Identity Advisory Group, a task force set up to continue the reflection and consultation on the co-operative identity after Congress). What does the co-operative identity look like to them? Why should it be examined? How will it be done?

And importantly, what real-world impact could any changes have on co-op entities? Because any changes to the Statement on the Co-operative Identity will have far-reaching consequences: the Statement as it stands is embedded in the ILO’s recognition of co-operatives and in co-op legislation in different countries. It was also the result of a truly global consultation among co-operatives of all kinds. 

Politics and Economics 

Congress reminded co-operators of the international scale and scope of the co-operative movement. But the diversity of this international community brings challenges when attempting to gather organisations under a single identity – beginning with the word ‘co-operative’ itself. 

“In the USA in the 1930s and 40s, there were initial problems in creating electric co-operatives in some states, particularly in the South,” says Mr Lowery. “That’s because, like in some parts of Eastern Europe, co-operatives were considered to be communist operations. So in some states instead of co-operatives we have electric power associations, or electric membership corporations. 

“I think there is an interesting question here as to what semantics need to be addressed in various cultures so there is a clear line to the principles and the values.”

Another issue is how co-ops have been used by governments. “Co-operatives have a bad name in a number of developing countries,” says Ms Wilson, “because they have been used as official development instruments and because government co-option and abuse of authority have reduced the value of the co-operative idea in people’s eyes.”

Related: Co-op News reports from the World Co-op Congress

Organisations are developing their own vocabularies to overcome this, she notes. “In a country like Indonesia, for example, where you have co-operatives that are not totally independent of government, there have been successful efforts to rehabilitate the word ‘co-operative’. Instead of abandoning it, they add a few more words to make clear this type of co-operative is the real thing.” 

The People-Based Cooperative Enterprises of Indonesia, for example, was founded in 2016 by Robby Tulus (former director of ICA Asia and Pacific) and is now a full member of the ICA.

Another key context is the economy in which an enterprise is situated. 

“If you look at SEWA (the Self-Employed Women’s Association) in India, it really is obvious that it is bringing meaningful, life-changing economic and social benefits to its members,” says Ms Wilson. “It’s harder to champion the co-operative identity in developed economies; the dilemma is that, although our long-established co-ops also arose out of circumstances where ordinary people could not get the goods and services that they needed – the same problem inspiring the creation of co-operatives today in the global south – today needed services are provided by plenty of other non-co-operative actors, not just co-ops.”

This makes it easy, she adds, for mature co-ops in a developed economy to conclude they are just another competitor in the market, not a unique business model with a distinct identity. 

Mr Lowery agrees, adding that a return to the sense of ‘the community matters’ could bridge the gap between well-established co-operatives in advanced economies and co-operatives in developing economies. But he believes it is the co-operative values – ​​self-help, self-responsibility, democracy, equality, equity, and solidarity – that could make the difference.

“I think it’s going to be really interesting to see how this dialogue develops around the question of principles and values,” he says. “I keep saying this, but the values to me need a lot more focus of attention. And they don’t get it because we tend to gravitate right back to the seven co-operative principles. 

He highlights self-help and self-responsibility as values that “mean that the co-op is its members”; co-operatives could even save democracy, he thinks. 

“The democracy value is apolitical,” he says. “We see autocracies competing for ascendancy against true democracies. And we see the waning of strong democracies, from the point of view of citizens. Is it possible for members participating in co-operative values – if they are lived by the co-operative itself – to begin to develop a greater sense of ownership around democratic principles and practices?”

Re-examining the Co-operative Identity

So why is the ICA re-examining the co-operative identity, and why now? 

“Part of the answer is that it’s a good idea to do this every now and then, even if the only result is that you raise awareness of the co-operative identity and stimulate people to think about it within their own co-operative organisation,” says Ms Wilson. “But people also have a growing sense that the space that we thought we occupied in the public imagination is starting to be occupied by other alternatives – the social and solidarity economy, for instance, stakeholder capitalism and purpose-led enterprises.

“The current Statement on the Co-operative Identity [‘the Statement’] was adopted 27 years ago, and a re-examination is something the ICA has done every few decades – but it has to be said that almost from the day that the Statement was adopted, there have been ideas about things that should be added to it.” 

Currently top of that list are concerns around the environment; treatment of employees; diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI); and education. “Another general one, is a whole basket of economic wellbeing issues – wealth disparity, racial disparity, income inequality and so on – that have really been shown up by the pandemic,” adds Mr Lowery.

Some of this thinking was reflected at Congress, which was held online and in person in Seoul, Republic of Korea, in December. At the delayed closing ceremony, Ann Hoyt highlighted the key concepts discussed – including ethical value chains, increased inclusivity, culturally relevant education, technologies, multilateralism, regional co-operatives, climate change and a 100-year commitment by the ICA to fostering peace. 

“She also had this wonderful phrase about ‘creating communities of co-operation, integration, reconciliation, and equality,” says Mr Lowery, “and concluded her remarks by saying that there’s a sense of urgency. That
the time for or talking is done, the time for action is now.”

Ms Wilson agrees. “There really is an appetite at the moment to ask, ‘Given that we’re co-operatives, given our values, given our express principles, what are we called upon to do in the face of the world’s challenges?’ What I like about this question is it’s as relevant to mature co-operatives of long standing, operating a successful business in a developed economy, as it is to a small emerging co-operative in a developing economy.”

After Congress, it was announced that Alexandra Wilson will chair an advisory group of 23 people who will “conceive and assist with a broader consultation and reflection on the Statement on the Cooperative Identity”.

“We have a critical cross-section of people from all over the world, from a range of co-operative sectors,” she says. “We have broadly outlined what we’re going to do and roughly when we’re going to do it; it takes time to carry out the kind of process that we’re just embarking upon, so we see it as spanning two, maybe even three years.”

The advisory group will make an interim report at the ICA’s General Assembly in Seville in June, exploring fundamental questions – such as is the co-operative identity adequately defined? Is it widely understood? Are co-operatives operating in a manner consistent with it?

What changes could be made?

In terms of tangible outcomes, “we know from the board perspective that there is genuine interest in asking whether we need an additional principle,” says Mr Lowery. But, he warns, this must involve members. “It can’t be dictated from Brussels. We have to treat this as a membership-driven process that takes quite seriously the ideas and thinking of the people whose decision it was to be involved with co-operatives.”

Ms Wilson agrees. “You have to be really careful here. Those of us who have been hanging around for a while, who were there in 1995, who read Will Watkins’ account of the 1966 principles, we can’t just say to new generations of co-operators: ‘It’s all here, just go back and look at the text more closely’. Co-operatives have changed. The world has changed, and it’s going to change a lot more. So there has to be a conversation.” 

Part of this conversation will be around whether any change is needed to the formal expression of the identity – in which case, says Ms Wilson, there are a number of different options to consider. 

“We could change the Statement,” she suggests. “We could far more easily change the guidance notes – some would argue that that was the expectation when the guidance notes were written, that they would interpret the principles in the contemporary context. Another option is to produce other materials entirely.”

But any potential change – particularly to the Statement – is a long, meticulous process.

“You can’t simply change a principle or a word in it,” says Mr Lowery. “The Statement was voted on by an entire General Assembly in Manchester, in 1995, after about three years of extensive dialogue led towards the end by the late Ian McPherson. We have a large historical record preceding us, we have to proceed slowly and prudently.”

There are specific reasons for this, he adds, “not least that the United Nations and the International Labour Organization have adopted the Statement as a very specific formality within the ILO that recognises the critical importance of co-operatives. 

“In addition, there are countries, such as Australia, that have produced and successfully passed co-operative enabling legislation, which includes the Statement on Co-operative Identity, literally, and would have to be revisited if changes were made. Therefore, this is not just about adding a principle. This is not about modifying language. This is about exploring the Statement, ensuring that we fully understand its meaning and its implications, to be sure that we know how it is operationalised throughout co-operative sectors. In that process, there may very well be some folks coming forward strongly advocating for an additional principle or change in language. This would then need to become a membership discussion led by the ICA board of directors, ultimately concluding in a future General Assembly.”

The desire is for this consultation to be “as wide and deep as possible,” using the technology available. “This is the beauty of the information age. We have these fantastic tools that can reach out and can reach down at almost no material cost,” says Ms Wilson. “I think if we can design a good process here, something very rich will come out of it. 

“I also think that there are a lot of executives of larger co-operatives out there who think they’re part of the white-hat team, that they’re on the side of the angels. They haven’t really interrogated how they measure up. We would like this process to prompt people to say, ‘being a co-operative really does mean something’ and then carry that forward in their involvement with their own co-operatives.” 

“If we can get leaders from the global co-operative movement to begin to think a little bit differently about their mission and purpose, we can move mountains,” adds Mr Lowery. “There will be a collective strength that develops. I see the awakening of co-operative leadership to the unique value of our identity as a real potential outcome here.”