Where do the ICA’s co-operative principles stand on the environment?

Should the co-op movement add an another principle to make clear their commitment to protecting the planet?

With the International Cooperative Alliance re-examining the Statement on the Cooperative Identity, co-operators around the world have the chance to share their views on the topic.

Adopted in 1995, the revised Statement on the Cooperative Identity contains the definition of a co-operative, the values of co-operatives, and the seven co-operative principles.

Last year around 2,290 respondents took part in the ICA’s survey on the Cooperative Identity Statement, which formed part of a wider consultation to examine whether the statement is still fit for purpose. Some respondents said the identity statement works well as an ideal and in reality; some argued that it works well as an ideal but there is a gap between this and the reality on the ground; and some said the statement is not in itself effective and may not work well in practice.

As a result, opinions also varied with regards to how to proceed forward. Some respondents said the current statement is good enough while others said it needs to be updated to strengthen their contribution to addressing societal problems and the environmental crisis. 

But what do the statement and the seven co-operative principles actually say with regards to the environment?

The 7th co-operative principle of Concern for Community states that “Co-operatives work for the sustainable development of their communities through policies approved by their members.”

Related: Re-greening a continent: Co-ops working to restore land in Africa

To further emphasise the application of the principles in contemporary terms for the 21st century, the ICA released the Guidance Notes on the Cooperative Principles in 2016.

These provide detailed guidance and advice on the practical application of the principles to co-operative enterprises and point out that the wording of this 7th principle places the primary emphasis on “concern for the sustainable development of their immediate local communities within which co-operatives operate”. Furthermore, it is argued, this concern for the sustainable development of the immediate local communities led to the co-operative movement’s wider concerns for sustainable development of communities nationally, regionally and globally.

The Guidance Notes also emphasise the importance of the 5th co-operative principle  (Education, Training, and Information) with regards to the environment, explaining that co-operatives can help to raise awareness about “the social, economic and environmental advantages” of sustainable co-operative enterprises.

“This principle embraces within it the co-operative movement’s concern for, and a commitment to work for sustainable economic, environmental and social development that benefits communities as well as a co-operative’s own members,” reads the text.

Environmental responsibilities

The Guidance Notes argue that with the adoption of the Concern for Community Principle in 1995, environmental protection was included as a part of the ICA Statement on the Co-operative Identity. Yet the inclusion of the principle on concern for community also brought new responsibilities for co-operatives.

According to the Guidance Notes, “this places a duty on elected boards and management to seek approval from members in general assembly to policies that positively impact on the sustainable community development.”

As such, members have the responsibility to manage through democratic rights this tension between their self-interest and the wider concern for community.

As pointed out by the Guidance Notes, “in practice, there are many examples of co-operative members demanding a greater commitment to economic, environmental and social development by their co-operative”.

The Guidance Notes also highlight that all co-operatives “have a responsibility and duty to consider and reduce their co-operative’s environmental impact and promote environmental sustainability within their business operations and in the communities in which they operate.” Yet, the document also warns that “the magnitude of the environmental challenge demands that it be tackled jointly and in a coordinated way”, calling on co-ops to not only implement their own environmental conservation strategies, but also also actively contribute to raising awareness among other sectors of society.

“Co-operatives are known for pursuing the common good, so they are in an excellent place to stimulate and lead advocacy of this kind,” reads the text.

Prior debates

Discussions around the topic of environmental sustainability existed before the adoption of the revised Statement in 1995. The ICA’s Congress in Tokyo in 1992 focused on the issue of sustainable development and even passed a Declaration on the Environment and Sustainable Development. The GA also published a report on “Co-operatives and Environment”.

Conversations continued and in 2019 the Kigali Resolution Cooperatives for Development, which calls on governments and other actors to use the Identity Statement to create an enabling environment for co-operatives and maximise their potential and thus contribution to the Sustainable Development Goals.

Two years later the ICA released a research paper, Cooperation for the transition to a green economy, featuring eight case studies from all ICA regions and showcasing a variety of environmental actions from co-operative enterprises.

Ways forward

Whether the current principles and identity statement pay enough attention to the environment is for ICA members around the world to decide. One thing is certain – it would not be the first time the ICA principles would be amended. They are based on the eight original Rochdale Principles, and have been updated amended periodically, beginning with the 15th World Cooperative Congress in Paris in 1937. 

While some are keen to make the commitment of co-ops to the environment or equality more visible in the Statement, others fear that amending the principles or the statement would diminish its current importance. In its current form the statement is mentioned in the ILO Recommendation 193 on the Promotion of Cooperatives, which serves as a reference point to national regulators and legislators. It is for this reason that some co-operators are reluctant to change the statement.

Others think that should the movement decide to add an eighth principle, it could lobby the ILO to adopt a new recommendation. Co-operatives have a considerable advantage holding an observer status at the ILO. Another option could be amending the Guidance Notes on the Cooperative Principles.