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The Values of Cooperation


The Values of Cooperation

An exploration into cooperative values.
This is a blog by Ed Mayo
Ed is the Secretary General at Co-operatives UK and author of the new book ‘Values: how to bring values to life in your business’.

Sometimes, you just need confidence. Ask yourself this: do I ever feel a bit lonely, a bit different if I care about social justice, or about what we are doing to the environment? If you do, then it is not because you are alone. It is because you are made to feel alone. This is what I have learned from Common Cause Foundation.

We live in a world in which the narratives that dominate in society and the economy are rooted in values that tend to marginalise ‘intrinsic’ values of co-operation, fairness and sustainability. Common Cause Foundation are on a mission to give us confidence, proving that concern for those intrinsic values are far more widely shared than we are led to believe. If non profit, social movements stress these values, then we contribute to changing the narratives that keep us separate and unconfident.

I have recently been exploring whether what the Common Cause Foundation argues might also hold true for business – that even markets may be conduits for positive values.

One test case has been co-operative enterprises. There are around 1.6 million co-ops worldwide, operating under a global statement of values and principles, some underpinned in law, some voluntary, and all extraordinarily diverse expressions of a common shared model of a business owned democratically (one person, one vote) by people participating directly in the business.

The result is a short book, Values, a ninety minute read published by Greenleaf, in their Do Sustainability series. The book focuses on the practical tools for bringing values to life in business – how to recruit for values, how to measure values, how to bring values into the supply chain or into governance. It tells the stories of businesses that have tried and failed to change values, and those that have succeeded.

So, business can reflect different values. Of course there are challenges, of inequalities and competing purposes, but in principle every business relies on a high degree of voluntarism, both from staff (will they stay, will they be productive, will they speak up with innovations and improvements?) and from customers (will they stay, will they spread the word, will they too speak up with innovations and improvements?).

With voluntarism of this form making a difference, there is always a case for business to reflect better the values and deeper motivation of those it deals with. If the owners also share these values of fairness and sustainability, for example with a number of co-operatives, then the business case for action on fairness and sustainability is even more clear.

So, what next?

If there are one billion people worldwide who are co-owners of co-operative enterprises, then the next question is how these values of co-operation can become more prevalent or even dominant within society?

With data analysis being led by Common Cause Foundation, we are now looking at values data drawn from existing surveys worldwide, such as the European Social Survey and the World Values Survey, using in particular the widely respected framework on values developed by Professor Shalom Schwartz.

The results, across country to country, won’t be available until 2017.  When it comes, we hope to have been able to test for around ninety countries across the world, the prevalence of co-operative values.

The data, when published, may reinforce the finding that there are more people who care than we presume. More than the conventional narratives of power, including economics and politics, would have us believe.

We are not alone.

We just need the confidence to know that this is true and to act individually and collectively in ways that our shared intrinsic values call us to.

Values is published by Greenleaf and available here

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