Press release

UK co-operative sector buoyed by growing desire for a fairer economy, new report reveals

  • Co-operative economy 2017 report shows a buoyant co-operative sector that is giving people a stake in the economy
  • The UK’s 7,000 independent co-ops turn over £36bn a year and employ 226,000 people
  • The number of active members continues to grow, reaching 13.6 million
  • Co-operative retailers have performed well, with particular growth evident among new tech co-ops

With political instability over the last year indicating a public demand for a fairer economy, new figures released today (20 June) show the resilience and growth of the UK’s co-operative sector.

As reported in The Times, our annual state of the sector report, The UK co-operative economy 2017, finds that there are 6,815 independent co-operatives across the UK, ranging from high street retailers and farmer owned businesses to community sports clubs and web developers, which together turned over £36 billion last year.

The number of people who own and have a say in how the UK’s co-ops are run is also on the rise, with 700,000 new members over the last year, bringing the total to 13.6 million active members. The upsurge stems from a membership drive by the UK’s largest customer-owned business, the Co-op Group and new people joining other co-operative retailers, community owned businesses and credit unions.

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The report includes new polling data conducted by YouGov showing that people want more of a say over the economy, with two thirds of people saying that they have no control over the economy, and only quarter saying they can influence either their workplace or their local area.[1]

Ed Mayo, Secretary General of Co-operatives UK, said:“Underlying the political shocks the country has experienced over the last year is a call from many parts of the UK population for an economy over which they have more of a say and from which they get a fair share.

“As organisations owned by 13.6 million people, the UK’s 7,000 co-ops give people a say in what they do and how their profits are used. They offer a practical way to reimagine an economy in which people have more control over their homes, work and local areas.

“It’s no surprise we’re seeing a spike in interest in co-ops, whether it’s social care providers finding that a co-operative approach can give its users and workers a voice, or young designers and web developers seeing co-ops as a natural way to collaborate at work.”

Retail sector performance

The Co-op Group and a number of independent high street retailers, including Central England Co-operative, Midcounties Co-operative and Scotmid, have performed well over the last year. Despite the significant challenges in the market, the combined turnover of co-operative retailers – the largest part of the UK co-op sector – grew from £22.6 billion to £23.2 billion.

“It’s testament to the strength and relevance of the co-operative model that we see such a positive report on our sector, especially when set against the background of a climate of economic and political uncertainty.

“The Co-op difference is something we know our members increasingly see as being relevant, both in their communities and to themselves, but also in addressing issues that our country faces today, such as Modern Slavery and loneliness and isolation. Co-ops are about making society a better place to be. That’s been our role since we were founded, and it’s our responsibility to carry that forward for the co-operators of tomorrow.”

Steve Murrells, Chief Executive at the Co-op Group, the UK’s largest consumer owned co-operative.

Farming sector performance

 Despite one of the most challenging years British farmers have faced in decades, particularly in the dairy industry, agricultural co-ops – which enable farmers to achieve economies of scale by working together – performed well. They saw a small reduction in turnover, from £7.8 to £7.4bn, but an increase in the number of farmers using them to trade.

The report also identifies ways in which farmer co-ops are adding value to their members’ products, with innovative dairy co-ops like Arla and the Organic Milk Suppliers Co-operative developing new products and brands, and exporting to international markets.

“Despite a tough year, organisations like Arla are working hard to innovate and ensure a positive return for their owners. In our case, this has meant developing a portfolio of new and exciting dairy products, including vitamin-boosted milk and skimmed milk that tastes like semi-skimmed.

“While we are doing what we can to weather some challenging times, we also look to government to support our sector – and other co-operatives – in its Brexit negotiation and eventual transitional agreements, to provide continuity across trade, labour and food regulation in particular. This way, we will be better-placed to take advantage of the opportunities of Brexit to the benefit of our farmer owners.”

Tomas Pietrangeli, managing director of Arla Foods UK, the largest farmer owned co-operative in the country.

Creative industries growth

Co-operatives UK also identifies a new trend for co-ops among young people working in digital and creative industries. With collaboration a natural way of working for many people in these sectors, the last year saw a 28% increase in the number of start-ups among digital and arts organisations, accounting for just over 10% of all co-op start-ups over the year.

[1] Fieldwork was conducted by YouGov on 23-24 May 2017 through a survey of a 1,861 British adults. The figures have been weighted and are representative of all online GB adults (aged 18+).

Read the full UK co-operative economy 2017 report here