UK launch of International Year of Co-operatives at the Guardian
The Guardian, by Claudia Cahalane
Panellists and audience debated how co-operation can change British business for the better
"We are often looking for the next big thing, at new innovations, but sometimes we need to go back to where we started from to find the answer," said Jo Confino, the Guardian’s director of sustainable business, chairing the UK launch event for the International Year of Co-operatives.
The panel featured three leading figures from the UK and international co-operative movements from the UK – the International Co-operative Alliance’s (ICA) Pauline green, Co-ops UK’s Ed Mayo and Len Wardle from the Co-operative Bank – plus leading innovation and business thinker Charles Leadbeater and a contribution over a video link from the vice-president of the chinese co-operatives federation, Li Chunsheng. The invited audience consisted of 100 co-operative, social enterprise and sustainable business leaders.
Kicking off proceedings, Charles Leadbeater said that years of the neo-liberal economic theory – that selfishness and competitiveness activates the economy, will be proven to be "dramatically wrong over the next few decades".
He said he believes that the heart of businesses in the future will be a "creative community" joined by cause.
"Innovation is essentially a collaborative activity. Look at Pixar, that is a creative community joined in a cause, and that is the way business will be in the next few decades."
The president of the International Co-operative Alliance Dame Pauline Green said the year was a great chance to tell the world about co-operatives. "The movement is stretching right across the globe. United Nations figures show that the 300 largest co-ops are worth $1.6 trillion USD… they are bigger than all corporates put together… they are part of a sustainable and hugely democratic future."
Len Wardle, chair of the Co-operative Group – one of the world’s biggest cooperatives – talked about how the business, which includes many arms – from food to funeral care, and possibly legal services in the near future – has grown phenomenally.
"We’ve doubled in size and profit in the last four years. We employ 110,000 people. Together co-ops can move this economy," he said.
Li Chunsheng, vice-president at the All China Federation of Supply and Marketing Co-operatives, which employs eight million people, spoke from China via video link. He highlighted the huge scale at which his co-operative operates, explaining that it has a 68% market share in China’s agricultural sector.
Ed Mayo put paid to any notion that co-ops play second or third fiddle to private business in his speech, by saying that co-ops outperform private businesses in the economy by 20%. "There are also more members of cooperatives than there are shareholders in the UK. Co-operation is a good strategy for a tough economy. Co-ops are about building an economy based on need rather than greed," he told the room.
Mayo also questioned the perception that co-ops are seen as unfashionable was wrong. "You get the older people harking back about the local co-op shop, but young people do see co-operation as fashionable. They are collaborating and co-operating with online ventures all the time.
Leadbeater added: "We wonder how the movement can scale up. It’s about releasing small resources in the right way and networking them. The big challenge for people is wondering how to get scale from networks and how to get those networks to see themselves as a movement."
Leadbeater said that people would increasingly see that the best innovations were coming not from private companies. "Microcredit has been the biggest innovation in recent years – it’s done more than anything that’s come from the city.
A question from development manager at cooperative Energy4All asked how the movement could answer the challenges of our age. Mayo’s response was that finance is a key part of this. "Finance is at the heart of the credit crunch and the Co-operative Bank offers an alternative. There are many examples out there of how to build a sustainable economy through co-ops.
Jo Confino asked Pauline Green whether co-ops could play at the same level as major corporations. "Finding resources is always going to be an issue," she said. "ICA is developing what we hope will be a legacy – a huge development fund. Charlie (Leadbeater) mentioned microcredit, but there is no financial asset class for coops that want to develop."
A delegate from the audience asked to what extent the .coop internet address could be a force for change. Green was enthusiastic about the address. "It’s great for visibility. It’s about saying who you are… a great indicator of your difference. But it’s not about trying to create a global brand. Because coops are local, that doesn’t give us a global brand like Nike or Walmart. We don’t want to build an empire, we just want to show what we can do for local economies," she said.
Charles Leadbetter said he thought perhaps too much time was being spent trying to make the social enterprise / co-operative movement the next big third sector. "I think social enterprise is not supposed to be that big, I think its supposed to have huge influence on those other sectors and that domain name might lead to cooperatives becoming trapped," he said
A question from Michael Robinson, president of the New Forest Hospital Radio team, asked about whether boards of directors at private companies should be replaced with a cross section of stakeholders. Len Wardle said that The Co-operative Group has 20 board members, one of who is a lollipop lady in her day job. "You would never get that in a private company, boards need to be more balanced," he commented.
Shaun Tarbuck, chief executive of the International Co-operative and Mutual Insurers Federation, asked a question about the challenge of setting up the right environment for cooperatives to grow and about getting political support. Mayo said that some politicians have been supportive, particularly in growing a cooperative housing sector in Wales. He added that Co-operatives UK wanted to make it as easy to set up a co-operative as any other business, and was trying to educate politicians and civil servants about the benefits of co-operative business models.