Co-operatives doing business with other co-operatives is one of three key ways in which the sector´s contribution to the economy can be ambitiously and dramatically increased, a conference in Wiltshire heard this week.
At the annual Future Co-operatives conference on Friday and Saturday, January 28 and 29, delegates charged themselves with identifying ways in which the share of the UK´s GDP created by co-operative businesses – ethical companies owned by their workers or their customers, rather than external investors or shareholders – could be increased from two to 20 percent by the end of the century.
Now, the findings are to be published in a new action plan called From 2 to 20 by Gloucester-based Co-operative Futures, the business development consultancy responsible for helping people set up co-operatives in Wiltshire, Gloucestershire, Oxfordshire and the West Midlands.
Setting the scene, Co-operative Futures director Jim Pettipher reminded the 77 delegates – representing co-operatives from the length and breadth of the UK – that there are roughly 5,500 co-operative businesses in Britain, and 12.8 million people are a member of a co-operative.
Yet just over 250 years of investment and activity have delivered a co-operative economy that is estimated at only two percent of GDP. “We want to see the UK co-op sector grow ambitiously and dramatically as a portion of gross domestic product,” he said.
Keeping the wealth within the sector was determined by delegates to be one of the simplest ways in which co-operative businesses could help the co-operative economy to grow.
Individual co-operative businesses, the conference heard, could make small gestures like holding their account with the Co-operative Bank, switching to Co-operative Energy for electricity, and making the Phone Co-op their telecommunications supplier.
The conference also decided that co-operatives must do more to promote what co-operative businesses are, and what they stand for.
While The Co-operative Group, the consumer co-operative behind the eponymous supermarket, travel agent, pharmacy and funeral director has created a super-brand, there is a general assumption that all co-operative businesses are part of the group, the conference heard.
Independent co-operative businesses needed to be ambassadors and shout about the diversity of the sector – from village shops and pubs to wind farms, housing associations and credit unions – while all co-operatives should actively promote the values of democracy, equality, social responsibility and the highest ethical standards in conducting business, including the sector´s place at the vanguard of the organic and Fairtrade movements.
And brand ambassadors needed to look outside the sector, taking the message of co-operation to groups like the Federation of Small Businesses and Chambers of Commerce, and to business consultants, accountants and lawyers who helped people establish new companies.
Finally, the creation of a co-operative has to be as straightforward as possible. It is hoped that the recently announced Co-operative Consolidation Act, which brings together around 60 laws governing co-operatives into a single statute, will simply the formation of new co-ops.
Meanwhile, a wealth of help and advice is readily available from co-operative development agencies like Co-operative Futures, and in many cases assistance is provided free-of-charge to the business founder through the Co-operative Enterprise Hub.
For more information about starting or growing a co-operative, visit www.futures.coop or call 0845 456 2506.