Denmark’s co-op movement looking for formal recognition

Denmark is the country of associations – but people do not perceive co-ops as business models

While 37% of all housing in Denmark is provided through co-ops, re-marketing co-ops remains a big challenge for the movement.

The CEO of co-op federation Kooperationen, Susanne Westhausen, spoke about the sector at the UKSCS conference in Sheffield, and said the challenges faced by co-ops in Denmark are similar to those in the UK.

The country has no co-operative legislation, which means co-ops can register in any form they want and set out the co-operative principles in their by-laws.

Worker co-ops in particular are being perceived as old-fashioned but continue to enjoy a close relationship with trade unions.

On the other hand, Denmark is home to some 16,500 voluntary clubs and associations. There is a joke that if two Danes sit together for five minutes, they will start an association.

“Denmark is the country of associations but people do not perceive them as business models, again due to a lack of legislation,” said Ms Westhausen. She explained that some co-ops were losing members and board members and then being sold. For consumer co-ops, a key issue is explaining to customers that being a member is different from just having a loyalty card.

On the other hand, the young generation likes the idea of working together across countries. “The best way for them to learn is by doing trips to co-ops to get a co-operative experience,” she added. The country is also moving away from the welfare state, which could open the healthcare sector to co-ops and mutual.

In the absence of a legal definition of the social economy, allocating specific funding to co-ops is not possible, even when political players are in favour of promoting the sector, added Ms Westhausen.

She thinks that in spite of these barriers, there are opportunities for the sector. Changes brought by the fourth industrial revolution are expected to result in higher numbers of people working part time or as freelancers – and co-ops can help them have more bargaining power.

The UN’s Sustainable Development agenda gives co-operatives the chance to show how they can make a difference. New organic farming co-ops are also taking off in Denmark, where people are more familiar with organic products than they are with co-ops.

Kooperationen is currently working on creating a co-operative certificate. The federation is a network of 92 member enterprises and 14,000 employees, being the country’s main apex organisation for co-operatives. It provides professional legal advice and counselling within areas such as employment law, company law and construction law.