Co-ops Have a Long History of Building Resilient Communities. They Should Keep Driving Sustainability Efforts.


This year’s International Day of Cooperatives, observed on Saturday, July 7, is focused on Sustainable Societies through Cooperation. Celebrated annually by the United Nations (UN), the day is an opportunity to promote the role of co-ops in building global peace and security, as well as a reminder to cooperatives and credit unions to consider how we can do more to contribute to sustainability.

How did co-ops come to play such a central position in international development?

Co-ops are businesses that are owned and democratically governed by their members—the people who use them to provide themselves with products, services and livelihoods. This unique structure means that cooperatives are rooted in their communities. And because they are designed to meet the needs of their members rather than maximizing short-term profits, co-ops are more sustainable.

While the co-op model is well suited to building stronger local communities, the movement has been international in its vision from its beginnings. For example, Robert Owen, often described as the “Father of Cooperation,” traveled extensively to share his vision for utopian villages based on the community he developed at New Lanark, Scotland (now a UNESCO World Heritage Site). But it was the founding of a small food co-op in 1844 by working people in the North of England that enabled the movement to grow globally. By establishing the core cooperative principles, the Rochdale Society of Equitable Pioneers provided the framework for what has become one of the largest social movements in the world with more than 1 billion members.

As Johnston Birchall notes in “The International Co-operative Movement,” co-op activists had begun exchanging ideas across borders by the 1850s. As communities across Europe struggled with the impacts of the Industrial Revolution, cooperative ideas took root and grew rapidly in response the local needs. While consumer cooperation became the dominant model in the UK in response to rapid industrialization and the challenges faced by working people, credit unions first emerged in Germany among rural farmers and urban artisans. In Denmark, small independent family farmers used co-ops to compete with large producers and processors. And in Italy, France and Spain, worker co-ops became an important tool for creating sustainable jobs in the face of increasing globalization. From these early experiments, co-ops have spread to every corner of the world and every part of the economy.

In 1895, activists gathered in London founded the International Co-operative Alliance (ICA) for the purposes of sharing information, promoting cooperative principles and establishing commercial relations among co-ops in different countries. The ICA was particularly successful in helping to establish legal statutes in countries around the world, enabling people to incorporate cooperative enterprises.

From the beginning, the ICA held an international perspective, including a commitment to democratic economic development and global collaboration as keys to world peace. In this sense, it is not surprising that the Alliance developed a relationship with the UN early in its history. Founded in 1945 in the wake of World War II, the UN was established with the primary goal of promoting international peace and security through conflict prevention, human rights and economic development. A year later, the ICA became the first non-governmental organization to be granted consultative status with the UN.

Over the decades since its founding, the UN has worked with the ICA to identify common objectives. In 1968, the General Assembly tasked its Economic and Social Council with considering the role of cooperatives in economic and social development. And in 1971, the Joint Committee for the Promotion of Agricultural Co-operatives was created, reflecting concerns about global food security. Over the years, the scope of this committee has been expanded until it was given its current name, the Committee for the Promotion and Advancement of Co-operatives (COPAC), in 1989.

In 1992, the UN General Assembly accepted COPAC’s proposal to adopt the International Day of Co-operatives, celebrated by the ICA since 1923. The first joint observation took place in 1995, commemorating the ICA centennial and the Next 100 Years of International Co-operation. Celebrated annually on the first Saturday in July, Co-op Day has focused on a wide variety of issues, from globalization to employment, empowering women to engaging youth, peace-building to micro-finance, and economic equality to social inclusion.

This year’s theme, Sustainable Societies through Cooperation, reflects growing recognition of the challenge of climate change and the need for more stable and resilient business practices in the wake of the Great Recession, as well as alignment with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. As COPAC noted in its announcement of the celebration, “cooperatives have two centuries’ experience building sustainable and resilient societies. Agricultural cooperatives work to maintain the longevity of the land where they grow crops through sustainable farming practices. Consumer cooperatives support sustainable sourcing for their products and educate consumers about responsible consumption. Housing cooperatives help ensure safe dwellings. Utility cooperatives are engaged in the transition to cleaner electricity and rural access to energy and water. Worker and social cooperatives aim to provide goods and services in an efficient, planet-friendly way, while creating long-term, sustainable jobs.”

Your local co-ops and credit unions play an important role in enabling people to meet their own needs and build stronger, more sustainable communities. And together, they are part of an international effort to make the world a better place today, and for future generations.

For more information on participating in International Co-ops Day, visit ica.coop/en/events/international-co-operative-day.

—Erbin Crowell is Executive Director of the Neighboring Food Co-op Association, serves on NCBA CLUSA’s Board of Directors and is an adjunct lecturer with the UMass Amherst Department of Economics, where he teaches courses on the cooperative movement.

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