Reinventing the World: Business Models, Model Businesses

Co-operative enterprises are run by their service users

When I wrote Consumption by Design as a provocation to our insanely consumerist culture driven by unscrupulous 360° marketing campaigns, I offered a design based solution (Cradle-to-Cradle) as an alternative. This time, the exposure of UK’s co-operative model will serve as the business case for good, fair trade and inspiring marketing practices; yes, ethical marketing does and can exist. It’s all about giving a legitimate purpose to the act of communicating.

A co-operative is a business organisation owned and operated by a group of individuals for their mutual benefit. In the case of a community, where schools represents the brains and religious institutions the soul, co-operatives are the heart; pumping goods and services and empowering people through democratic participation. There are community owned co-operative farms, pubs, and schools, and there are businesses where the employees own the enterprise, called worker co-operatives. In fact, the largest in the UK is The Co-operative Group, which interestingly, is owned by over five million consumers, and is best known for its food, banking, pharmacies, and 5,000 retail outlets.

Alpha Communication is a local Durham-based marketing co-operative that uses its design and communication expertise to engage with value-driven organisations (mostly co-ops and social enterprises of all types). Alpha has recently been working on the issue of the plight and development of rural village commerce in the UK. Many villages do not have local shops or cafés, and the dwindling commerce has become a symptom and effect of a dying community. Yet there has been a surge in creating co-operative shops that are owned and rescued by the community, and besides serving the obvious purpose at hand, it also proves a viable and better business form. At a time when private-owned village businesses are closing at a staggering rate of 400 per year (and local pubs have been hard hit), the co-operative model reveals a 97% success rate. They not only bring the community together as they are directed by people with shared motivation, but they are financially healthy and prove that you can control your own business and future should you decide to do so.

Positive marketing is what it’s about. It’s the difference between, say, advertising the latest must-have gas-guzzling car, or yet another materialistic necessity, and an investment company that lends money to promote prosperity through entrepreneurship. Alpha’s new website for Shared Interest displays that the financial co-operative is the world’s only 100% fair trade lender. Another good example of relevant information “pollination” is UK’s co-operative involvement with the production of the brilliant movie Vanishing of the Bees.

The Enterprise Hub, run by the Co-operative Group, offers free advice and training to support start-up co-operative businesses. It has advised co-operatives across the UK on how to become a successful business; having assisted cafes, community shops, nurseries, energy enterprises, research groups, community farms, and credit unions. As mentioned by Jonathon Porritt in the The Guardian, cooperatives thrive by “putting social justice at the heart of its strategy, with or without a business case. While others have to keep their shareholders sweet by demonstrating that all their sustainability endeavours will benefit them – either directly or indirectly, in the long run if not immediately – the Co-op just has to keep its members sweet by doing what they’ve mandated it to do anyway.”

Plurality is one of the best signs of healthy democracies, therefore this article does not advocate that all businesses to convert to the co-op model, but co-operatives seem to care a lot more about the important things in life; the communities we live in, the people who are less fortunate, the environment around us; yes, a whole lot more than the profit-driven companies that can easily dictate our lives, wallets, and souls. As former president of Rockfeller Foundation, Raymond B. Fosdick once said, “It is always the minorities that hold the key of progress”.

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