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Rethinking Co-operation

by Admin

By Davie Philip

“We must, indeed, all hang together or, most assuredly, we shall all hang separately.” ~ Benjamin Franklin

With the slowdown in the economy and low emloyment rates, could we be doing more together with what we have in a way to build the resilience of our communities and provide meaningful livelihoods? In this column I want to explore the role co-operatives could play in the revitalisation of rural localities and urban neighbourhoods, along with a new emerging sharing economy.

The UN has declared 2012 the year of the co-operative in the hope of raising awareness of this more equitable model of doing business. In the middle of the 19th century in a climate of high unemployment, low wages, and horrendous working conditions, co-operatives first emerged in Europe, North America and Japan. Co-operative enterprises make an invaluable contribution to society; they generate livelihoods and contribute to reducing poverty.

In 1844 a number of artisans in the north of England, who became  known as the Rochdale Pioneers, developed the predecessor of the modern co-operative society. As they could not afford the high prices of food, they set up the Rochdale Equitable Pioneers Society to pool resources and work together. A shop was set up that gave access to basic foodstuffs and every customer became a member and had a say in the business and shared the profits. The values and principles embraced by today’s worldwide co-operative movement have evolved from the ideals of these early co-operators.

The co-operative movement played an important role in Ireland’s development – especially in the areas of agriculture, with the rise of creamery co-operatives, and in finance with the introduction of credit unions. However, during the 1980s, four of the five largest dairy co-operatives in Ireland transformed into PLCs and began trading on the Dublin Stock Exchange. Although credit unions are still popular, the co-operative model in Ireland has gone out of fashion as a business structure.

Credit unions started in Ireland in the 1950s at a time of unemployment, poor health, sub-standard housing, unemployment and soaring emigration. The root cause of these problems was identified as the scarce availability of money, and in response the founders initiated the credit union system. A credit union is a group of people who save together and lend to each other at a fair rate of interest. This co-operative service offers members the chance to have control over their own finances, as the people who save and borrow with it own the credit union.

Today over one billion people worldwide are members of co-operatives. The International Co-operative Alliance defines them as “autonomous associations of persons united voluntarily to meet their common economic, social and cultural needs and aspirations through a jointly-owned and democratically controlled enterprise”.

Growing up in Scotland, I remember The Co-operative Shop that supplied food, financial services, health care, funeral and legal services to its members. This is still the largest mutual business in the UK, owned not by private shareholders but by over six million consumers. My family were members, and as well as being the place where we bought our groceries, the co-op was our bank, supplied our insurance and was even where we booked our holidays.

My first real engagement in co-ops though was through the Dublin Food Co-op, one of Ireland’s largest consumer food co-operatives. It is 100% owned by its members and gives access to wholefoods and organic produce through a weekly market. This provides a focal point for community and it was here that the idea of the ecovillage in Cloughjordan, where I now live, was first hatched.

The company I work through, Cultivate Living and Learning,  is actually a worker’s co-op called the Sustainable Ireland Co-operative Society Ltd. The structure of a co-op has allowed us to maintain a sense of autonomy and ownership while providing meaningful employment to a team of people who are committed to working on sustainability issues.

I currently chair the Cloughjordan Community Farm, which is probably Ireland’s best example of community-supported agriculture (CSA), a model of co-operative food production and distribution. We currently provide fresh vegetables, milk and meat to over 60 member households. Our community farm is not registered as a co-op but does act like one as it is owned and run by its members.

Last year I visited housing co-operatives in Amsterdam and Berlin, which as well as offering affordable housing also provided spaces at street level for residents to work. Co-housing is not a new model, it started in Denmark in the 1980s and is popular in many places around the world, but co-housing, along with shared workspace, is new. With so many empty buildings in cities and streets that need revitalising, this co-operative approach could give people shared ownership or a secure tenure on homes, as well as providing space to start new enterprises. This approach is just what we need in these times and could bring life back to neighbourhoods as well as facilitating meaningful livelihoods.

I just finished reading What Is Mine Is Ours, a book that introduces the concept of collaborative consumption. This is a relatively new term describing how people are beginning to value access to things and services instead of valuing ownership. We have been sharing ‘stuff’ since we lived in caves, and the idea of renting has been around for a long time, however it’s only recently by harnessing the power of social media that new enterprises have emerged to facilitate sharing.

Businesses that are both profit-making and that add value to the community are popping up all over the place. These utilise technology and peer-to-peer marketplaces to facilitate swapping, sharing, bartering, upcycling, trading and renting. I don’t need to own that power drill that I have only used twice in the last year; it would be far better for me to join a local tool library and get access to whole range of tools. Why bother with the expense of running a car when I only use it a few days a week? It would be cheaper for me to join a car club and get access to a wide range of cars when I need to use one. If I have an extra room in my house that I never use, I could post it on Airbnb – a service that connects people who have space for those who are looking for a place to stay. This new sharing economy could help us enjoy products or services without the expense, inconvenience and maintenance of individual ownership.

Most of us are recovering individualists and very much in the habit of owning and doing things on our own. However, in these uncertain times business-as-usual is not an option. As Bertrand Russell stated, “The only thing that will redeem mankind is co-operation.”   We need to learn to work together again and strengthen our communities. The member-owned co-operative business model could create livelihoods, secure housing and offer services that reanimate rural localities and urban neighbourhoods. I believe that co-operatives will play a leading role in the building of community resilience and, along with the trend of collaborative consumption, provide systems that are financially, socially and environmentally sustainable.

Davie Philip runs the Community Resilience programme at Cultivate, he is a resident of the Cloughjordan Ecovillage and a board member of GIY Ireland. He conceived and directed Surfing the Waves of Change, a new Cultivate short film that introduces the concept of community resilience and can be seen at www.cultivate.ie

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1 comment

rjtechne@iol.ie'
Roy Johnston April 3, 2012 - 11:54 am

The need for a co-op revival is obvious, if some means is to be found for avoiding ‘bubble’ economics and giving full employment without deficit financing and dependence on ‘growth’. The latter concept is not long-term possible on a finite planet.

A good place to begin could be relating the urban consumer to the local rural quality food producer, via a distribution system. These 3 distinct communities all suggest a need for co-operative organisation, and it would perhaps make sense to combine them, and have a single management reporting to a Board representing all 3 groups. This is perhaps the type of target that the ‘community supported agriculture (CSA) movement needs to consider.

The problem is how to develop the necessary scale and organisation, fit to challenge the existing domination by the capitalist supermarkets. It needs to be addressed in identifiable steps, based on positive experience.

I have seen in the US (specifically, i Burlington, Vermont) a farm owned by urban consumers, worked by voluntary labour, with a professional manager; also a shop, owned by a co-operative of local farmers. Perhaps these two models can combine to make a bridge?

I have seen in Ireland organic producers serviced by a ‘boxman’ supplying a market of individual urban organic consumers. This system however often depends on imported organic food, mainly from France, where ‘agriculture biologique’ is well developed.

Thus the elements are all there, but how do we develop the o-operative organisation, and train a management which understands the implications of co-operative ownership?

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