What is a co-operative?

Cooperatives are a reminder to the international community that it is possible to pursue both economic viability and social responsibility.”  Ban Ki-moon (United Nations Secretary General)

Co-operatives can be traced back to early civilisation when humans gathered in communities for mutual benefit. Arguably the oldest form of social enterprise, co-operatives aim to put people, rather than profits, at the center of their organisational model by empowering workers to collectively own their own businesses.  They are one of the most innovative organisational structures whose commitment to a triple bottom line of ‘people, planet and profit’ tries to ensure economic, social, and environmental sustainability. Because of this, there is a growing interest in co-operatives as an organisational model, despite the negative press associated with the Co-operative Bank.

In 2013 the Guardian stated that co-operatives have grown by a fifth since 2008, whereas the wider economy has failed to grow at all. They went on to say it is pretty clear that the co-operative approach works even in a difficult climate. Whilst co-ops seem to be going from strength to strength, it’s strange to see people’s blank faces when they find out Voluntary Action Harrow (VAH) is a co-operative. “What is a co-operative?” “You mean your hippies?” Some of the responses are quite humorous but it highlights a worrying fact most people don’t really understand what co-operatives actually are.

International Co-operative Alliance, define a co-op as “an autonomous association of persons united voluntarily to meet their common economic, social and cultural needs and aspirations through a jointly owned and democratically controlled enterprise. Co-operatives are based on the values of self-help, self-responsibility, democracy, equality, equity and solidarity.  In the tradition of their founders, co-operative members believe in the ethical values of honesty, openness, social responsibility and caring for others.”

In comparison, Co-operatives UK uses the simpler definition: “Co-operatives are businesses owned and run by and for their members, whether they are customers, employees or residents. As well as giving members an equal say and share of the profits, co-operatives act together to build a better world through co-operation.”

Whilst co-ops can be defined in various ways: no single definition is sufficient to explain the potential and flexibility of the organisational structure. Voluntary Action Harrow (VAH) is a workers co-operative, which means it’s owned and managed by its members. There are many different kinds of co-operatives such as housing, building, retailer, utility, credit unions, social, consumer, agricultural and political, amongst others. They might come in different shapes and sizes but all co-ops around the world generally operate according to the same seven core principle:

1. Open membership

2. Democratic control

3. Common ownership

4. Autonomy and Independence

5. Education, Training and Information

6. Co-operation among Co-operatives

7. Social aims alongside economic aims.

These principles underpin co-op policies, practices and procedures to ensure a united value and mission.

And this is the real beauty of co-ops!

By agreeing to these global values you are joining a movement of like-minded organisations and individuals with a strong determination to build a better future for us all. Through this powerful network you can receive help, resources and advice which can be invaluable when starting-up.

If national co-operative statistics and local interest in co-operatives are any indication, no doubt, the co-operative movement will continue to grow and expand.

Think Big. Think Local. Think Innovative. Think Co-operative.

In co-operation,

Alex Buckmire