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Co-operation Rebuilding British Business
The Guardian Debate 12 January 2012

With economic collapse worldwide there is talk of stimulating new markets, new financial systems, and partnerships. In recession hit Britain there is talk of finding new ways to put Britain back to work.

A collaboration with the Guardian Newspaper’s “Sustainable Business” initiative, Co-operatives UK and the International Co-operative Alliance the UN’s International Year of the Co-operative was officially launched in London's King’s Place - a recently built business and cultural complex close to the Eurostar terminus in Kings Cross St Pancras, and home to the Guardian Newspaper and Network Rail.

The ‘launch’ - entitled “Can Co-operation rebuild British business?” - included a ‘live’ panel discussion with illlustrious speakers from the UK and International Co-operative movement: Ed Mayo Secretary General of Co-op’s UK, the ‘trade association’ for co-operative enterprises, Pauline Green, president at the International Co-operative Alliance, Len Wardle, Chair of The Co-operative Group, Charles Leadbeater, management consultant on creative thinking and innovation. The discussion was ‘chaired’ by Jo Confino, executive editor of the Guardian Sustainable Business. The ‘worldwide’ perspective was achieved through a weblink to China with contributions from Li Chunsheng, vice president at the All China Federation of Supply and Marketing Co-operatives.

Video of event

The conference room was filled with ‘delegates’ from Co-operatives UK, co-operative development agencies, co-operative housing and credit unions, and a cross section of co-op businesses from London and the regions.

Through the use of satellite communications London was connected to China and in an instant of bypassing Europe the panel discussion got underway. Pauline Green spoke of the privilege of the UN's declaration of the International year for Co-ops giving both an opportunity to develop a co-operative led movement worldwide as well as highlight the importance of the co-operative economy - now growing towards a $1.6 trillion turnover. Other panel members spoke of the large range of businesses which make up the Co-op family: from consumer co-ops, the highstreet ‘co-op shop’, insurance, banking, farming, and the myriad of businesses of all shapes and sizes which employ 110,000 people in Britain alone. However numbers ‘paled’ in comparison to the growth of the potential ball that's bouncing in China's economic ‘business park’. These comparisons were quickly put aside to discuss the need of shifting the universal mindset towards an ethical modus operandi and away from current panic tendencies of selfish individualism, hoarding and greed which have prevailed in Western economic and business practice.

The panel discussion moved towards looking to the future economy rather than dwelling on the present economic collapse and of recognizing new models of scale opening up different ways of collaborative working. It was acknowledge that much of this thinking has grown out of the ‘networking culture’ and has been greatly influenced by direct social actions such as the “Occupy” movement in NY Wall Street and in London around the City’s Stock Exchange in Paternoster Square.

The economic ‘global Village’ was further illustrated through a number of development partnerships evolving between first and third world economies, such as work done around ‘collaborative co-operatives’ in Bangladesh by the US energy co-operative - National Rural Electrification Co-operative Association (NRECA).

From the beginnings of the Co-op Movement in farming and food production the major co-operative industries of the future are located in environmental issues, renewable energy, green transport and the ethical financial sector (micro credits). To support these initiatives in the UK over the next three years £17 million has been set aside by the Co-operative Group. However, the underlying sense of the discussion dwelt on the things which differentiate the Co-op model of wealth creation and production from the discredited practices of “doing business”. The task at hand is to raise universal awareness of co-operative ethical principles, show that the original reasons why co-ops came into being are still relevant and prove that the co-op model cannot only rebuild ‘british business’ but create productive and reciprocal partnerships world-wide.