Sustainability is at the core of the global cooperative identity.
That was the message Dame Pauline Green, president of the International Cooperative Alliance, had for hundreds of representatives of the co-op community during the 4th Annual Cooperative Issues Forum at Washington, D.C.’s National Press Club last week.
Her keynote dovetailed with the “Blueprint for a Cooperative Decade,” a strategy embraced by the cooperative movement at a meeting in Manchester, England in 2012, named International Year of Cooperatives by the United Nations. The blueprint envisions that by 2020, cooperatives will be the acknowledged economic leader, the preferred business model and the fastest-growing enterprise worldwide.
Already, ICA member organizations represent 1 billion people in 100 countries. But continued growth and sustainability, Green said, hinges on a thoughtful look at the way cooperatives are promoted, governed and funded with careful attention paid to their reach, influence and reputation.
“The cooperative movement has been very good at talking to itself, but not always good at spreading its message outside the cooperative sphere. We started to change that in 2012; we must not lose momentum,” Green said.
One way co-ops can help promote the movement’s identity is by adopting the cooperative logo and .coop domain. Developed with the input of cooperative leaders from 86 countries, the visual identity “indicates a thirst to retain the cohesion we had during the International Year of Cooperatives,” Green said.
Still, challenges persist. Cooperatives, Green said, battle stereotypes that still dominate the opinions of policymakers and community members.
“Growth an efficiency is driven by profitability, and often cooperatives are perceived—because of the democratic processes and their concern for community—as inherently less efficient,” she said.
Meanwhile, as the national economy in the United Kingdom collapsed 1.7 percent over the last six years, the country’s cooperative economy grew by nearly 20 percent, Green said. A database maintained by the World Cooperative Monitor and last updated in 2013 indicates that there are now 2,032 cooperatives based in 56 countries worldwide. The largest 300 of those cooperatives are worth a collective US$2.3 trillion.
“So we’re not talking about small businesses. And that puts a lie to those who would have you believe that the cooperative model is just about little niche businesses off in the corner. But many policymakers still think like that, and we have to change this thinking,” Green said.
“There can be no doubt that a business model with people at the center of decision-making is a core part of the global economy,” Green added.
She urged every co-op represented at the event to register with the database. “The bigger the database, the more we’re able to argue the case of the strength of our movement around the world,” she said.
Another challenge cooperatives face is governance. The recent financial crisis within the cooperative banking industry in the U.K., coupled with governance issues faced by Mondragon, Rabobank and other iconic cooperatives, have fed the stereotype that the cooperative model outpaces sustainability when it comes to managing large businesses, Green said.
“I’m making the case to the media, ‘If the cooperative model of business is not suitable to run a bank, how is it that the capitalist system is so good when so many billions of public money had to go into wresting commercial banks from bankruptcy?’” she said.
The reality, Green said, is that cooperatives are as vulnerable to poor governance as corporations are. “There’s nothing wrong with the cooperative model if it’s done properly.”
Indeed, she said, cooperatives are at the forefront of securing sustaining economic development worldwide. A recent partnership between the ICA and the UN Food and Agriculture Organization is working to build a cooperative economy across Sub-Saharan Africa.
By 2050, Green said, earth’s population will outstrip the capacity of agriculturally productive land to sustain an estimated 9 billion people. Seventy-five percent of the land that could be more productive lies in Sub-Saharan Africa.
“If we’re going to make this work in a way that actually supports the African people who are working that land, we want to see it develop as a cooperative economy,” Green said. The alternative, she added, is to stand by and watch multi-national corporations or predatory states “buy up African land and give the African farmers a pittance.”
The “holistic view of sustainability” at the heart of the cooperative model encompasses much more than the sustainability of the planet, Green said. “It also includes our working relationships, our supply chains, our community engagement, our work to end poverty and what we give back to the community,” she said.
“What we want to do is drive a different dialogue,” she added. “We need to report on efficiency, growth and sustainability in a way that sells the cooperative model.”
The 2014 Cooperative Issues Forum was hosted by the Cooperative Development Foundation, a 501(c)(3) non-profit foundation headquartered in Washington, D.C. that promotes community, economic and social development through cooperative enterprises.