Consumer Co-operatives Worldwide (CCW)


1. What are co-operatives?

Co-operatives are open, democratic organisations owned and controlled by their members, who actively participate in their decision-making processes. They are formed by people who share a common set of values and principles and who get together in order to achieve a common objective, such as joint purchase and supply of consumer goods, joint agricultural or industrial production, education, health care, etc.

2. What are consumer co-operatives?

A consumer co-operative is an autonomous association of consumers united voluntary to meet their common economic, social and cultural needs and aspirations through a jointly-owned and democratically-controlled enterprise. Consumer co-operatives - like all other forms of co-operatives (banking, farming, insurance, and so on) - thus adhere to the Co-operative Principles set-down by the International Co-operative Alliance in Geneva and which have the imprimatur of the United Nations. Member needs are satisfied through distribution networks ranging from small corner shops to large outlets, elaboration of food quality policies, publication of member-magazines, information and education campaigns, etc. Consumer co-operatives therefore play an important role in the local social and economic fabric.

3. What are their distinctive values?

Consumer co-operatives are based on the values of self-help, self-responsibility, equality, equity and solidarity, commitment to the sustainable development of their communities and beyond. In the tradition of their founders, co-operative members believe in the ethical values of honesty, openness, social responsibility and caring for others. In putting these values into practice, consumer co-operatives are guided by the following internationally-agreed co-operative principles:

  1. Voluntary and Open Membership
  2. Democratic Member Control
  3. Member Economic Participation
  4. Autonomy and Independence
  5. Education, Training and Information
  6. Co-operation among co-operatives
  7. Concern for Community.

4. What are the rights and duties of members of consumer co-operatives?

In primary consumer co-operatives, members have equal voting rights (one member, one vote) and co-operatives at other levels are also organised in a democratic manner, differing from the one-vote-per-share system used by most businesses. Voting rights are tied to membership, independent of the level of investment. This ensures that one member cannot exercise control over the group.

Member participation is an essential part of the democratic management of consumer co-operatives. Members are not only consumers, but also shareholders and actively participate in business operations and other activities. The General assembly of member representatives is usually the highest decision-making body. Elected members work in partnership with management to ensure co-operative goals are met. Members may also stand for election in local committees.

Men and women serving as elected representatives are accountable to the membership. In this way, the common need rather than the individual need is served. Members are expected to promote co-operative ideas and values by exercising their voting rights, in addition to keeping themselves informed about the latest developments within the co-operative and respect its rules.

5. When, why and how were consumer co-operatives created?

The consumer co-operative movement has its roots in the Lancashire textile town of Rochdale, England, where, in 1844, harsh living conditions and inadequate consumer protection - the adulteration of food by private traders was widespread - inspired 28 workers to adopt a new approach to the supply of food and other goods and the provision of social and educational facilities for ordinary working people by setting up a retail co-operative society, the Rochdale Equitable Pioneers Society.

These 28 Rochdale pioneers opened a shop in Toad Lane, where they sold wholesome food at reasonable prices. A share of the profit or surplus as they preferred to call it, was returned to members in proportion to their purchases - the famous co-operative dividend or "divi". The Pioneers and other early Co-operators owed much of their inspiration to the co-operative writings of Dr William King, a Brighton physician and philanthropist, and Robert Owen, a Welsh manufacturer and social reformer. From the decisions and practices of the Pioneers, based on the Owenite theories of Co-operation, the Rochdale Principles of Co-operation were formulated. These included : voluntary and open membership; democratic control - one member, one vote; payment of limited interest on capital; surplus allocated in proportion to members' purchases - the dividend; and educational facilities for members and workers.

It is not claimed that the Rochdale Pioneers Society was the very first co-operative nor was its shop the very first co-operative store. There were earlier societies, but even those that survived came to adopt the Rochdale pattern of Co-operation as the best means of operating a consumer co-operative society and fulfilling its aims. Rochdale became a model for the formation of similar co-operative societies throughout the United Kingdom and around the World.

Today, there are more than 700 million Co-operators in more than 100 countries supported by the Geneva-based International Co-operative Alliance.

6. What is the difference between consumer co-operatives and other forms of enterprise?

The primary objective of a consumer co-operative is to satisfy members' needs and expectations. Rather than being the ultimate aim, profit is the means to develop a stable business to reach this objective. Consumer co-operatives take a global approach to production and distribution, taking into account members' concerns about health, environment and other issues. Corporate Social Responsibility is a fundamental feature of their approach to business.

7. Do you need to become a member in order to use the services of a consumer co-operative?

No, membership is not a pre-requisite to use the services of a consumer co-operative. On the other hand, consumer co-operatives offer advantages to their members such as discounts, promotions, end-of-year refunds and of course participation in the managing of the co-operative.

8. Are consumer co-operatives still relevant in the 21st century?

In a society in which undertakings are profit-driven and more interested in maximising investor returns than the common good, consumer co-operatives offer an alternative to consumers that are concerned about such issues as the environment, health, development, etc. Consumer co-operatives empower consumers by enacting the "One member, One vote" principle, while focusing on solidarity. Consumer co-operatives are committed to providing consumers with a responsible choice, and therefore often lead the way on major consumer initiatives such as labelling information, support for Fair Trade products, organic produce, etc.

Consumer co-operatives constantly seek to satisfy consumer demand for better products and services at reasonable prices, while continuing to emphasize activities that meet members' social and cultural needs, and a desire for a sustainable society.