There has never been a time when the co-operative approach to business has been more important, writes Len Wardle, Chair of the Co-operative Group

When the first co-operative was established in Rochdale in 1844, its founders sought to free the poor from the adulterated food and fixed prices that were so prevalent at the time. Their brand of equitable, democratic ownership quickly caught on, with hundreds of other co-ops springing up all over the country.

The Co-operative Movement encompassed many different trades, from funeral services to fish and chip shops. A trading movement owned by working class people had shops on almost every high street – all of which were based on the collective values of self-help, self-responsibility, democracy, equality, equity and solidarity.

However, by the 1990s, the co-operative movement found itself much humbled. The movement’s breadth of businesses had dwindled – gone were manufacturing and the chippies. To many people the ‘Co-op’ seemed somewhat old-fashioned and a relic of the past – something not helped by rather dowdy and traditional stores known more for their economy than their ethics.

Not any more. Since the doldrums of the nineties, the co-operative movement has reinvigorated itself and re-embraced those principles laid down so many years ago. New initiatives in rebranding and marketing have seen the movement’s skill base grow again and our early and warm embrace of Fairtrade, ethical sourcing, and environmentalism have given the whole movement renewed moral and political vigour. And, as Britain’s biggest farmer, the Co-operative Group is also best placed to deliver lower carbon sustainable foods, without squeezing the producer, while offering help and support to the many Fairtrade co-operatives the world over.

This renaissance could not have come at a better time. If the credit crunch and the subsequent recession demonstrated anything it is that a market that rewards short-term investments and greed is unsustainable. In the past eighteen months or so the world has learned – and at a heavy price – what the co-operative movement has known all along. The financial sector must care a little more about stakeholders and a little less about shareholders if we wish to see a stable economy and fair society.

Most financial institutions in the credit crunch have not had a huge amount to celebrate. Yet the Co-operative Bank has seen its profits rise, its bad debts fall, and all this while championing a green, ethical and socially responsible approach to business. The Co-operative Bank has also just merged with the Britannia Building Society – creating a new financial super-mutual with £70 billion worth of assets, nine million customers and more than 300 branches.

As the recession begins to bite we, the world’s largest consumer co-operative, are spearheading unprecedented growth and investment. This year we have acquired Somerfield – and the newly merged food business will run more than 3,000 grocery stores and generate net food sales of around £10 billion, making us the fifth largest food retailer in the UK.

And it’s not just the Co-operative Group that is undergoing a renaissance. Across both the public and private sector we are seeing new co-operative and mutual organisations flourish – everywhere from energy to education, and from football to Fairtrade. The Government has just announced an increase in Co-operative Trust Schools from 100 to 200.

Building an economy more in tune with co-operative values is necessary if we want the sort of society we are trying to build as Labour supporters. Co-operatives are not just important to our economy and society just because they do Fairtrade or keep local economies going, which they do – but for a more fundamental reason.

As a co-operative the reason we can behave in an ethical manner is very simple – it’s because we are owned by our members, who believe that business should be about more than profit maximisation. This means that we are not only providing goods and services to our members and customers, but we are also part of a mission to improve the world for our customers and communities. There has never been a time when this approach to business has been more important.

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