The co-op advantage

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Co-operatives – they touch the lives of millions of Canadians, putting food on their tables and providing services ranging from banking to housing, from retail stores to health care. They include some of Canada’s – and the world’s – most successful businesses and are major players in the Canadian and global economies.

Here in Canada, some 10,000 co-operatives have a total membership of more than 15 million members, and new co-ops are springing up every day. Globally, the world’s 300 largest co-ops have a total turnover of nearly U.S. $2-trillion, equivalent to the Gross Domestic Product of Italy, the world’s ninth largest economy.

From October 6 to 9, the spotlight will be on Quebec City, where representatives of co-operatives from around the world gather for the second biennial International Summit of Cooperatives. Stéphane Bertrand, the summit’s executive director, says the event will not only give co-op leaders access to ground-breaking research and an opportunity to exchange best practices, but it will also give them a forum for showing their pride at being part of this growing and dynamic global movement.

According to Mr. Bertrand, co-operatives have a great deal to be proud of. For one thing, they are some of Canada’s – and the world’s – most durable and resilient businesses. 

Research in Quebec, Alberta and British Columbia has shown that new co-operatives are more likely to still be operating in five or 10 years’ time than other new enterprises. A study conducted in 2009 for the International Labour Organization (ILO) showed that co-ops not only survived the 2008 global financial crisis, but in some cases even increased their membership and revenues while other businesses were failing.

“Co-ops put an emphasis on long-term decision-making, rather than the short-term, quarterly focused decision-making we see in investor-owned companies,” said Lou Hammond Ketilson, a professor at the University of Saskatchewan and co-author of the ILO report. “We found evidence that financial co-operatives, for example, had a unique relationship with their members that resulted in decisions that were more risk-averse; they were more concerned about the welfare of their members and their communities than short-term gains.”

While co-operative leaders are proud of their past and optimistic about their future, there are still challenges for co-ops to overcome. One major challenge is access to capital.

Co-operatives and Mutuals Canada (CMC), a national association representing co-operative and mutual enterprises, has been working to create a Canadian Co-operative Investment Fund, which would be financed by the co-operative sector and, in turn, loan money to co-ops wishing to develop or expand.

 “We need to mobilize our financial assets in order to support co-op development,” said Denyse Guy, CMC’s executive director, adding that she would like to see the federal government become a partner in the fund.

Capitalization is also one of the five main themes of this week’s summit.

“This is a big challenge for every co-operative in the world,” said Mr. Bertrand. “We want to have a frank discussion with people in the financial sector – and not just the co-operative financial sector – to make sure they understand what a co-operative is and that they trust co-operatives as strong enterprises.”

Another major challenge is visibility. Even the millions of Canadians who drink milk produced by farmers’ co-ops, shop at co-op stores or do their banking at a credit union don’t necessarily appreciate the difference between a co-op and other businesses. Nor do they realize that their co-op store, farmers’ co-op or credit union is part of a national and global movement with real economic clout.

According to Ms. Guy, creating a co-ordinated approach to promoting the co-operative advantage also presents an opportunity, one that she hopes will be discussed at the summit.

“Co-ops are democratic, ethical, sustainable and community-based: we should be promoting that as a major marketing advantage,” she said. “Since 2012 – the U.N. International Year of Co-operatives – I’ve seen a much stronger sense of pride about being a co-operative. It just needs to move to the next step, and this is a wonderful opportunity for us to do so.”

Click to view full report CO-OP Advantage.