Co-operatives Fortnight is our time to talk. It is a collaborative campaign of co-ops right across the UK, large and small.
The fortnight opens with the national event for the sector, Co-op Congress 2018, which takes place in London on Saturday June 23rd. And it closes on Saturday July 7th on International Co-operatives Day, backed by the United Nations itself and celebrated across the world.
The theme this year is the Co-operative Difference. As a theme, this allows every co-op to explain how they are different and what a difference we make to our members, our communities and indeed to the wider world.
The Uig community shop on the Isle of Lewis, established in 2004, is a co-operative on one of the UK’s most remote communities. If you ask how it is different, those involved describe it as a Tardis – “small and compact on the outside, but inside there is a wealth of produce.” When you then ask what difference it makes, they pause before setting out to describe the multiple ways in which the co-op is a lifeline to local people. A shop, a post office, a cash machine, a meeting room, a laundrette, an arts and crafts centre and a public toilet, it helps to keep local businesses going – like a beef jerky supplier that sells to the mainland using the post office. As a force for community economic development, it helps to keep much of the local economy going.
What stands behind community co-ops like these is often the support of larger co-operatives and supportive partners that see the value of this difference. Uig members, for example, say that “it would be impossible to get a regular supply of good quality goods at a reasonable cost without support from the Co-op.”
At a time when high streets are challenged and business conditions for any enterprise are tough, it makes good business sense anyway to stand out, to be different. Worker co-operatives, for example, can say that “we put an owner in front of every customer” – how many businesses could say that?
You can buy food from around the world, but what about from our own countryside? Farmer co-ops are investing in domestic products, local food that sustains local jobs and keeps the rural economy healthy. Housing co-ops in towns like Redditch are building not just homes, but communities where the self help and mutual aid of residents rebuilds trust and hope in a town hit hard by recession for over a decade.
The co-operative name and reputation is something that stands our members in good stead when it comes to marketing and to recruitment. Of course, there are many labels across the co-operative sector, reflecting our diversity: credit unions, social clubs, farmers markets, employee owned business, mutual, leisure trusts, social enterprise, social firms, community energy, commoners and collectives. The underlying strand to all these, where set up democratically, is the co-operative form. The good news here is that public recognition of co-ops is rising, part in thanks to initiatives like Co-operatives Fortnight, and public trust in co-ops is significantly higher than for PLCs.
Because of our difference, the core brand of co-operatives is an asset.
In the digital economy, and in the freelance sector, a new generation of co-operatives is emerging, responding to the desire for good work – where people have a voice. UnFound, in partnership with Stir to Action and with support from The Hive – a support programme for co-ops delivered by Co-operatives UK in partnership with The Co-operative Bank – is the world’s first accelerator for platform co-ops like this, coming to completion this Co-operatives Fortnight. These are visionary co-ops, that want not just to make a difference in today’s economy, but to build a different economy for tomorrow.
Not surprisingly, there will be many different events to mark the co-operative difference – In Lincolnshire, co-op staff and members have been helping to clean up local sites, showing what can be done when people work together for the community. In Birmingham, as in around twenty other places across the UK, there will be a showing of a wonderful Canadian film on the co-operative difference, A Silent Transformation. In co-op convenience stores across every neighbourhood, there will be fairtrade products from co-ops overseas and colleagues and members willing to talk about joining as a member.
I hope that you find a way to engage with the sector over Co-operatives Fortnight 2018.
In a world of sameness, it is good to be different, it is good to be co-operative.