Consumer co-operatives: past, present and future
UKSCS is back with an in-person conference for 2022. The conference will be held on the 26th-28th August at the University of Lincoln.
More details on registering for the conference will be made available in the coming months, meanwhile please see the below for more information and call for papers.
Consumer co-operative organisations are key players in the co-operative movement, both nationally and globally, not only in terms of turnover but also with regards to number of members, as well as various other economic and social indicators. Existing histories of consumer co-operatives tend to narrate the evolution of these organisations in a pattern of rise and decline. On one hand, this narrative captures the development of most consumer co-operatives across several countries. It is, for example, descriptive of the British consumer co-operative movement in the pre- and post-war period. On the other hand, however, the rise and decline tale tends to neglect the consumer co-operatives that managed not only to defend but also to strengthen their position during that period. An example of this comes from the Norwegian consumer co-operative movement (Ekberg, 2017). Exploring the interplay between the overall development of consumer co-operatives and significant changes in the competitive and societal environments in which these organisations operate is therefore of relevance for both practitioners and scholars.
In the UK, there is a particularly strong tradition of consumer co-operation not just because of the early successes of the Rochdale Pioneers, but also because political actors in the late C19/early C20 (particularly Beatrice and Sydney Webb) actively promoted consumer over worker co-operatives. From the end of the C19 up to WW2, British consumer co-operation grew rapidly, reaching a level of market dominance now enjoyed by retailers such as Tesco’s (Wilson et al., 2013). However, after WW2, supermarkets based on capitalist principles usurped the market domination of co-operative retailers, triggering mergers that reduced the number of independent consumer co-ops. Following the Myners report in 2014, the largest co-operative retailer weakened the principle of democratic member control by increasing the power of managerial / board level influence over board level appointments through new screening processes, and reducing the number of member-nominated board places.
However, alongside periods of consolidation and decline in co-operative retailing, there have been new cycles of expansion (and contraction) across multiple sectors. According to the Association of British Credit Unions (ABCUL), credit union membership has grown 41% in the UK in the last decade (see ABCUL, 2022), and the World Council of Credit Unions (WOCCU) reports levels of market penetration near or above 50% in many developing and developed economies (e.g. Canada, 42%; Nepal, 46%; the USA, 56%; Togo, 62%; the Caribbean, 66%, and notably Ireland, 100% - See WOCCU, 2020). There has also been expansion and contraction in sectors like energy, particularly in Denmark (Wierling et al., 2018); schools, notably the UK (Thorpe, 2011); and sports (Jones, 1989).
Consumer co-operation in the UK remains dynamic, introducing telephone and internet services through for example, The Phone Co-op (https://broadband.yourcoop.coop/) and CoTech network (https://www.coops.tech/). After passing the Co-operative and Community Benefit Societies Act 2014, new community benefit societies evolved to support local activities, protecting postal services, pubs and opening corner shops. Larger co-op retailers continue to develop Fairtrade through new purchasing strategies. New forms of member engagement have supported campaigns against modern slavery, climate change and loneliness.
Association of British Credit Unions [ABCUL] (2022). Facts and statistics. https://www.abcul.coop/credit-unions/credit-unions-facts-and-statistics
Eckberg, E. (2017). Against the tide: Understanding the commercial success of Nordic consumer co-operatives, 1950-201. In M. Hilson, S. Neunsinger & G. Patmore (Eds.). A global history of consumer co-operation since 1850,(pp. 698-728). Brill.
Jones, S.G. (1989). Sport, politics, and the working class: Organisation labour and sport in inter-war Britain. Manchester University Press
Myners, P. (2014). Report of the independent governance review. The Co-operative Group. https://www.co-operative.coop/investors/myners-report
Thorpe, J. (2011). Co-operative schools in the UK. Journal of Co-operative studies, 44(3), 57-62
Wierling, A., Schwantiz, V.J.; Zeiß, J., Bout,C., Candelise, C., Gilcrease, W. & Sterling Gregg, J. (2018). Statistical evidence on the role of energy cooperatives for the energy transition in European countries. Sustainability, 19(9), 3339 (1-25). https://doi.org/10.3390/su10093339
Wilson, J.F., Webster, A. & Vorberg-Rugh, R. (2013). Building co-operation: A business history of The Co-operative Group, 1863-2013. Oxford University Press.
World Council of Credit Unions [WOCCU]. (2020). Statistical Report. https://www.woccu.org/documents/2020_Statistical_Report