Could co-operatives replace private business to create a stronger economy?

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The Greene Hill Food Co-op, New York Photo © The Nabe

Contrary to some perceptions, co-operative businesses are flourishing more than ever in the UK. Following a research project into the potential of the co-operative model, Rob Harrison proposes why it could offer an alternative to capitalism

It’s one thing to point out the flaws in our current economic system, but another entirely to propose a practical working alternative. A failure to offer clear suggestions was one of the main criticisms levelled at the wave of Occupy protests that swept the world in 2011.

More often than not, co-ops tend to perform better than other companies on social and environmental issues. Perhaps, if co-ops replaced all private businesses, the crazy ‘race to the bottom’ (when companies compete to cut wages or emissions controls the fastest in order to sell cheaper products) of unregulated international competition would somehow melt away? It’s an intriguing idea, and one that Ethical Consumer magazine explored through an essay prize, conference, online discussion, and book published with New Internationalist called People Over Capital, which gives 16 different viewpoints on this practical question.

The project found that co-ops are in fact already thriving. With the recent troubles at the Co-operative Bank liberally spread across the press, you might be forgiven for thinking that the co-operative movement is in retreat or disarray, but the reality is the opposite. In 2012, the number of co-ops in the UK increased to more than 6,000 and their turnover grew to £36bn.

Co-ops are very much an international movement as well. There are more than 800 million members of co-operatives in the world. Between them, they employ over 100 million people. This is 20% more than multinational businesses. The largest 300 co-ops in the world have a combined annual turnover of $1.1tn. In Finland, the co-operative sector is said to account for 21% of GDP, in Switzerland 16% and in Sweden 13%. Meanwhile, three-quarters of all fair trade goods are produced by co-operatives in developing countries.

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