Co-ops: they’re great, right? Everybody seems to love them, and they’re often held up as models of enterprise that can fulfil some of the most challenging aspects of our societies: creating sustainable employment, empowering the disenfranchised, addressing poverty, ...
But sadly, there are many myths and mistruths perpetuated about them through ignorance, which are probably part of the reason why co-op enterprises have never really ‘taken off’ in this country like they have in others, and are often treated with trepidation by the wider business community.
There’s plenty of material already out there (if you only look or ask for it) that helps to dispel some of these myths that relate to decision-making needing to involve everyone, all employees needing to be paid the same wage, etc, but I wanted to pick up on one that seems to be creeping in to not just rumours about co-ops, but also has implications for the wider economy too: competition.
Co-ops are defined by a set of universal values and principles, which include ‘co-operation amongst co-operatives’: the sense that the sector grows stronger by actively supporting each itself and each other. But this isn’t the same as not competing with each other as some seem to think (based on a few recent twitter conversations...)
Competition, if open and honest, between co-ops is actually quite important and vital: it forces them to constantly question assumptions about how things should be, what customers want, and if there might be a more effective way of achieving the end goals. That doesn’t mean co-ops have to undercut or metaphorically backstab each other, but as part of co-operating with each other, it should mean that there’s a healthy and open discussion about what each might be able to do that’s different to the others, and which will ultimately also mean more choice and benefit for customers and the wider community and society.
Competition stops us stagnating and being overtaken, and surely better to be in ‘healthy competition’ with people who share our underlying values, than a faceless corporation whose only interest is in making as much money out of people as possible?
And this sense of competition being something we should encourage amongst ourselves shouldn’t be limited to just co-ops - collaboration is being increasingly encouraged between businesses within all sectors and industries, so as with so much else, the co-op movement would seem to have some useful learning for other these other marketplaces and enterprises to draw upon and be inspired by.
Competition – it shouldn’t be a dirty word for co-ops, but rather one which should be encouraged and celebrated as a means to make sure we keep upping our game so we can have ever greater impacts on our communities and the wider world.