UKSCS Conference takes a look at consumer co-ops as a force for good

If human society is transitioning from consumerism to citizenship, what part can retail co-ops play in shaping the world for the better?

With the world facing urgent crises around issues such as the environment, food and new tech, the co-op movement is among those jockeying for position to offer a way forward – notably in terms the United Nations’ sustainable development goals (SDGs).

But where do consumer co-ops – often mistaken by casual shoppers as conventional supermarket businesses – fit into this? This question was at the forefront of discussions at last weekend’s conference of the UK Society for Co-operative Studies (UKSCS) in LIncoln, which presented academic research alongside presentations from prominent co-ops. 

The event was held on the home turf of Lincolnshire Co-op, which sponsored the event and showed off its substantial efforts to regenerate the local economy. It hosted site visits to two major Lincoln developments it has spearheaded – the state-of-the-art Science and Innovation Park and the Cornhill Quarter, which has refurbished a historic part of the town with properties owned by the co-op rented out to retail and hospitality businesses.

Related: Lincolnshire places store at heart of city centre redevelopment

Lincolnshire was among the retail co-ops making presentations to the first day of the conference. Head of membership Laura Dunne and CFO/acting CEO Steve Galjaard said retail co-ops are joining a societal move from consumerism to citizenship.

“Co-operation in our world is about bringing together partners to make life better for communities,” said Dunne. “This is especially important for a regional co-op like us.”

Lincolnshire’s twin flagship developments are not the only brick-and-mortar evidence of how this can play out: the society has worked with communities and members to improve local infrastructure – for instance in rowing back on plans to redevelop a pub in its estate portfolio after locals protested; instead it helped them buy the site as a community pub. Other projects include an upgrade to a GP surgery and the development of a co-working space. 

From Central Co-op, CEO Debbie Robinson talked the conference through the society’s rebrand, which included the adoption of the international co-op marque. This fits with Central’s activist role, notable in supporting development in Malawi; Robinson suggested the retail co-op movement could join forces to build on this work and even a small commitment – perhaps 0.02% of all co-op sales in the UK – could generate millions for development. 

Debbie Robinson at an in-store promotion for Central’s work with Malawi

Meanwhile, Central continues its efforts on colleague pay, energy sustainability – more pressing now that soaring electricity costs have added £25m to its bills – and store upgrades, which offer more public amenity in terms of green spaces and benches, child-feeding stations and EV charging points. “As co-ops we can really lead on the journey towards 15-minute liveable communities,” said Robinson.

Related: Central Co-op leads international trading development fund

In driving these co-op efforts, member engagement is crucial; Tara Simmons from Midcounties said that for her society, youth is an important part of this, with three elected places on the society’s member engagement committee.

Members were also given a leading role as the society developed its five-year sustainability plan; and helped by innovations like the Your Co-op app, the society has seen 55,000 instances in a year of members engaging in some way other than shopping. The goal, said Simmons, is to double that. 

From the Co-op Group, Mark Robinson-Field agreed that the shift to citizen culture is tech-driven, with brands and organisations expected to offer simple forms of participation. The Group has spent the last five years looking into this, and members came back with a desire for participation in terms of learning, choosing causes to support, campaigning on issues like mental wellbeing, and co-creating products and services. In 2022 there were 1.9 million instances of member engagement, he added.

In the open floor discussion that followed youth was identified as the key priority. “We need to communicate differently to younger people in language they understand about membership,” said Tara Simmons, who warned that young people often found the notion of membership as “hierarchical”. Nick Matthews from Heart of England Co-op said it would be useful in that sense to “think of co-ops as a web of connections rather than a pyramid”. 

Tanya Noon from Central said her society had carried out extensive school engagement. Co-ops also do social media engagement but, warned Robinson-Field, “unless we’re clear on the meaning of ownership it doesn’t matter. We are trying to sell something as staunch co-operators to people who aren’t going to take the time to close the gap in understanding.”

The second day of the conference put this discussion into wider context with the presentation of new scholarship on the co-op sector. Historian Andrew Bibby presented his new book on the pre-1919 tenant co-operators movement – an under-acknowledged model of housing co-op (see interview by Natalie Bradbury).

Co-op historian Tony Webster, from Northumbria University, presented his study Consumer Co-operation in the 21st Century: Some Examples of Strategic Renewal, including fresh discussion of the history of the Co-op Group.

The flaw of the Group’s strategic renewal between 2000-13 was that it focused on acquisition over governance expertise, he said. This triggered the Group’s near-collapse but the sell-offs that followed have made planning for renewal easier, as there is “less to think about”.

The governance changes that went with this have brought more commercial knowledge and skills to the board but there is less power over management, he added. But an improved retail offer has empowered the Group to launch major initiatives like its campaign on loneliness; and this gives members more influence over activism.

Strategic renewals have played out differently in other countries, said Webster. In France there has been a movement-wide renewal, with the emergence of small consumer co-ops, with an emphasis on quality and sustainability. 

In South Korea, change was driven in response to concern over the purity and sustainability of food; lessons here suggest that strategic renewal should be flexible and incremental, not a “big bang”, said Webster. Pointing to examples of what can go wrong – such as Finland’s E Group, which hit trouble after opting for a top-down, thinly spread, diversified international model – he warned: “No plan survives contact with reality … they have to be flexible plans”. 

Jeevan Jones, vice president of the Co-op Group’s National Members Council, said the member-led model offers a commercial advantage because “we can find out what they want and act on that insight”.

Presenting the Group’s own research, he said there is more to member economic value than traditional divi model – in terms of special prices for members, products that only a co-op can offer, proximity to locations where other retailers do not want to operate, and principles – such as Fairtrade or a living wage.

Related: Jeevan Jones on the challenges for consumer co-ops

Rory Ridley Duff, from Sheffield Hallam University, gave an overview of a recent series of co-op seminars which suggested a reinvigorated radical edge to the movement with grassroots activism leading to new co-ops or other form of association. New forms of consumer co-op are rising in housing, leisure and sports, he said. “It’s not a big economic contribution but it’s a big grassroots activity.”

One rising area of activity for consumer co-op was discussed by Steve Graby, from the University of Leeds, who looked at personal assistants for disabled people. The prevailing model for delivering personal austonomy sees disabled people given money by the state to employ personal assistants but this has led to concern over how to handle issues like tax, training and employment law. One answer is to form consumer co-ops owned by disabled people which employ PAs; successful examples include Stockholm Indepented Living (STIL) in Sweden and Uloba in Norway. 

The shadow of the pandemic still hangs over the consumer co-op and its role in society and Claude-André Guillotte, from the University of Sherbrooke in Quebec, looked at the impact of Covid-19 on the Canadian co-op sector. 

He found that co-op businesses had maintained themselves successfully during the crisis despite a hit to revenue. It is important to talk about organisational resilience as a process, he said: how do you cope with a crisis, how do you adapt? Co-ops have social resources – members, employees, their relationships with clients, suppliers) – and also interco-operative resources in the shape of co-op federations.

Francesca Gagliardi

Looking at the SDGSs, Francesca Gagliardi, from the University of Hertfordshire, and Rory Ridley Duff presented their study on how these tie in with the co-operative principles. 

“It goes without saying in this room that we know co-ops are important in the SDG agenda,” said Gagliardi, “but it does not go without saying in every room.”

With a billion co-operators around the world and a close congruence between the co-op values and principles and the SDG agenda, the message is obvious but co-ops focus too much on their own members and communities, she warned. Co-ops can remedy this by stressing their potential as institutions for collective action; and their “polycentricity” – the valuable position they occupy at the centre of complex systems. Co-ops should collaborate to report their successes at sectoral rather than individual level, she added.

Lakshmi Jayan

One way to to demonstrate the co-op effort on SDGs was suggested by Lakshmi Jayan, from Sree Narayana College, India, who presented her work with Abilash Unny (Price Waterhouse Coopers, UK) and Raju G (University of Kerala (India), on the concept of a Consumer Cooperative Playbook. This would be a digital knowledge sharing platform which would see co-ops supply data on their work which would be made accessible to users via AI technology.

This would need high levels of investment and collaboration, she warned, but sectoral organisations such as the ICA, ILO and Euricse, and large co-operatives, could all contribute.