Living our co-operative identity to make a sustainable future for all

‘Co-operatives focus on long-term sustainability rather than profit for shareholders and wealth creation alone’

The fourth theme at the World Co-operative Congress was Living our Co-operative Identity – and how co-ops offer effective approaches to living sustainably.

In his keynote address, Olivier de Schutter, UN Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights, talked about the role of co-ops in building a new economic development model defined not just in terms of GDP. “The patterns of growth we’ve been developing in the past are simply not sustainable … Co-operatives focus on long-term sustainability rather than profit for shareholders and wealth creation alone,” he said. 

He added that the co-operative movement is “about more than just a better, more sustainable and ethical way of doing business”; co-ops have a “hugely important” message as the world searches for a new development model in line with the SDGs.

Mr de Schutter was joined in a plenary by experts who examined how the SDGs are being turned into effective local actions.

Olivier de Schutter speaking at Congress

Nazik Beishenaly from Leuven University presented her research which found that co-ops contribute to the SDGs by promoting inclusion and providing access to goods and services, sustainable housing, and sustainable energy. She recommended that co-ops communicate on activities linked to the SDGs, and integrate co-op-specific drivers and enablers.

Anders Lago, president of Co-operative Housing International, chair of HSB and of the ICA International Cooperative Development Platform, and ICA board director, Sweden, said housing co-ops were socially and economically sustainable long before the SDGs.

And IHCO chair Carlos Zarco said co-operative-specific targets and indicators were required to demonstrate the healthcare sector’s contribution to the SDGs.

CECOP president Giuseppe Guerini revealed that his organisation is developing indicators for worker and industrial co-operatives to collect data on their contribution to the SDGs. A similar project is being undertaken by the International Cooperative and Mutual Insurance Federation (ICMIF), which plans to launch its SDG Calculator in October 2022. Shaun Tarbuck, ICMIF chief executive, noted that while greenwashing remains a challenge, it does not apply to the co-operative and mutual sector. “We are transparent, that is why we are the trusted part of the community,” he said. 

Related: Committing to the co-op identity to tackle global challenges

Prof Ryota Koyama, Faculty of Food and Agricultural Sciences, ICAO Fukushima University, Japan, shared lessons from the response of the Japanese co-operatives to the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster. In the aftermath of the disaster, Japanese consumer and agricultural co-ops worked together to take the required safety measures and measure radiation levels. Meanwhile the Fukushima Network for Local Production and Consumption provided emergency assistance to members – work which continued during the Covid-19 crisis; local agricultural co-ops were among the first to provide food staples to students.

A series of parallel sessions continued the discussion on ‘living’ the co-operative identity. 

Decent Work

The 8th SDG promotes decent work for all, and the decent work agenda is a focus for co-ops worldwide. During a parallel session, delegates heard how legislation is crucial for decent work. Mirai Chatterjee, chair of the SEWA Cooperative Federation in India, said co-ops had a role in pressing for policy changes; India has recently created a ministry for co-operatives, which Ms Chatterjee thinks could be an opportunity to create more jobs for informal women workers. 

Anne Laure Desgris, director of SMart in Belgium, mentioned some of the challenges faced by platform co-ops, including the lack of legislation that recognises the model in countries like France and Belgium. “The innovation generated by our models is constantly coming up against legislation against it,” she said.

Similar legislative challenges are faced by domestic workers in the Republic of Korea. Youngmi Choi from Life Magic Care Cooperative said between 200,000 and 400,000 workers are not covered by Korean legislation and so could not access support during the pandemic. The co-op gave small loans to its members and lobbied the government for change; in May the country adopted new legislation that covers domestic workers, but it still does not cover worker co-ops. 

Health and Social Care

Dr Giuseppe Milanese, chair of Italy’s Conf-Cooperative, said the pandemic had laid bare weaknesses in the world healthcare system but he believes the pandemic gives an opportunity to transform the health system. To fail in this, he warned, risks “a situation that would probably lead to the collapse of our public and universal system, opening the way to financial capital and the privatisation of the system”.

Panellists shared case studies on how a co-operative approach to the pandemic had brought positive outcomes, including in Canada, where NorWest Co-op Community Health’s 53 health care co-ops worked with a team of doctors, nurses, counsellors, community leaders and public health workers to run a multi-pronged approach to tackle barriers around language, transport and trust, to encourage vaccine uptake. “We worked together in a way we had never worked before. This will change our health co-op forever … We will continue these teams going now,” said Nancy Heinrichs, executive director at NorWest.

Dr Gilberto Quinche, general manager of Coomeva Health Cooperative in Colombia, said the co-operative sector’s response was based on “solidarity and generosity”, encouraging home working and vaccination among its own workers, and offering relief packages to members, partners and communities. 

Aeng Min, executive director of the Korea Health Welfare Social Cooperative Federation, highlighted issues such as an ageing population and low birth – and how integrated care and health care service co-ops are being set up to deal with Korea’s demographic problems. 

Food Security

Food security is another issue addressed in the SDGs; in a session at Congress, panellists agreed that in order to meet these goals, there needs to be a distribution system which reduces inequalities; a prioritisation of data use and eco-friendly food systems; and a narrowing of the gap between producers and consumers.

Musa Sydney Sibandze, president of the Eswatini Farmers’ Cooperative Union in Eswatini (formerly known as Swaziland) said challenges include climate change, drought, flooding and refugee displacement. 

Co-ops can help drive the urgent changes needed to address these challenges by changing the way we produce and supply our food, believes Guilherme Brady, head of the Unit for Family Farming Engagement and Parliamentary Networks within FAO Partnerships and the UN Collaboration Division. This includes by putting in place inclusive services for members and advocacy for workers through democracy.

Dr Seunghyun Cho, researcher at NongHyup Economic Research Institute at the Korean National Agricultural Cooperative Federation, stressed the need to find ways to stabilise the supply and prices of food, while Aline Mugisho from the Nigerian Innovative Youth in Agriculture Project called for easier access to finance for young farmers and a greater role for young people in policy making. 

Affordable Housing and Energy

In a session on affordable housing and energy, delegates heard how the seventh co-operative principle of care for our community calls on the movement to tackle the climate, energy and housing crisis together. 

The built environment is responsible for 40% of greenhouse gases, a large part of which is the residential sector; in the session, speakers outlined how their co-operatives were meeting the challenge of providing clean renewable energy as part of affordable housing.

Dirk Vansintjan, president of RESCoop (the federation of European renewable energy co-ops), said the key to the successful shift from fossils to renewables and from centralised to decentralised energy production is to keep profits local and ensure that they are invested back in the community. Delegates also heard how schemes that connected energy co-ops with low carbon housing or community initiatives – such as those run by the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board in Manhattan, USA and the Ottawa Renewable Energy Co-op, Canada – were integral in making renewable energy accessible. 

Involving young people is also hugely important; Sido Kim Hye-min, chair of Minsnail Housing Co-op in South Korea, said the co-op, which offers affordable housing to young people, incorporates ideas such as solar panels, car-sharing schemes and bamboo toothbrushes. And it runs a popular life style programme which focuses on reducing a person’s carbon footprint.

Around the world, housing co-ops are implementing innovative energy schemes. In Germany, Bauverein Halle & Leuna eG is using district heating and co-generation and in Canada, Poisson Entêté uses an indoor farm to provide heat and hot water to a housing co-op. 

Social and Solidarity Economy 

Partnerships between co-ops and other actors in the social and solidarity economy (SSE) is an integral part of living our co-operative identity, delegates heard. 

Victor Van Vuuren, enterprise director at the ILO and chair of the UN Task Force of the SSE, called the social and solidarity economy the “world’s best-kept secret”. 

He added: “It’s important that we recognise that it is a tool that can advance and access certain rights, jobs and living conditions for people. And the key is going to be partnerships.”

Speaking in his role as president of Argentinian co-operative apex Cooperar, Ariel Guarco told how the organisation worked with all the actors in the SSE to support schemes such as global development and local employment generation; encouraging people to “buy local, buy co-operative and buy products of the social and solidarity movement”; educating the business environment “with our values and principles”; and committing to take good care of people and the planet. 

He added: “The co-operative movement has always understood that we cannot build on our own – we need to build together.” Mr Guarco believes the main strength of the SSE is its ability to innovate socially.

Also from Argentina, Alexander Roig, president of the Institute for Social Economy (INAES), said it is important to co-create public policy to bring on board the interests of all the SSE actors – and that although there are many historical reasons that make mutualism and co-operativism go hand in hand, “visibility needs to be increased.” 

This point was also emphasised by Juan Antonio Pedreño, president of Social Economy Europe. “I don’t think we do enough to brand and promote the social economy,” he said. “The pandemic has shown how important SSEs and co-operatives are – we need to better showcase the added value that co-operatives contribute to society and the wider business world.”

Ilcheong Yi, senior research coordinator at the UN Research Institute for Social Development in Switzerland, also stressed the importance of youth, saying that there is a need to invite more youth who are interested into the movement.

If this happens, he added, “then I think we don’t have to worry any longer because post pandemic, they will be leading the world.”