Both Map & Compass

A small group of artisans in 1840s England articulated the guiding principles that set cooperatives apart from other businesses, fueling a worldwide movement that today benefits more than a billion people across the globe.

August 2020

Richard G. Johnstone Jr., Executive Editor

Oftentimes, worldwide movements have humble beginnings. From business to politics, philanthropy to philosophy, many flourishing endeavors have sprung from small seeds, planted in welcoming soil.

Such was the case in the mid-1840s when a group of artisans, mostly weavers, pooled their meager resources to form one of the first modern cooperatives, the Rochdale Society of Equitable Pioneers, at 31 Toad Lane in Rochdale, Lancashire, England. The mechanization of the Industrial Revolution was making it harder for these artisans to earn a living wage, and thus to acquire basic foodstuffs for themselves and their families.

So, these 28 pioneers each contributed 1 pound, enabling them to open their own cooperative store, selling butter, sugar, flour, oatmeal and candles, to themselves and others, at a fair price. This modest undertaking might not have been even a minor footnote in the history of that corner of England were it not for one fact: These pioneers took the time and effort to put into writing the principles — seven in all — that would guide their endeavor.

In doing so, the modern cooperative movement was born, 175 years ago. Ever since, cooperative businesses around the world have followed the seven principles drafted by the Rochdale Society pioneers.

These principles outline what it means to be a cooperative, whether the cooperative purchases products for its members, or sells products grown or made by its members. These principles are put into practice by millions of self-help businesses across the globe, at locations large and small, serving and empowering over a billion people, every hour of every day.

These seven principles apply to cooperatives in sectors as diverse as agriculture, banking, babysitting, broadband, water, food, newsgathering, housing, handcrafts and, of course, electricity.

We’re pleased to introduce in this issue a recurring feature that will focus on how these cooperative principles help us represent your interests before elected officials, attract businesses to our service areas, improve educational opportunities for our young people and generally enhance the quality of life in our communities. We hope you enjoy this additional coverage of Co-op Principles.

Idealistic yet eminently practical, the seven cooperative principles serve as both map and compass. They show us where to go and keep us on course. These principles articulate that a cooperative is:

  • a voluntary organization, open to all who are able to use its services;
  • with democratic control;
  • and economic participation by its members;
  • in a business that is autonomous and independent;
  • and keeps its members informed about their business;
  • while also working together with other cooperatives to achieve mutual goals;
  • with one of them being a concern for the overall well-being of the communities it serves.

This last principle is perhaps the most important of all. In an age of globalization —and an economy often dominated by large national or international companies —cooperatives represent a sustainable investment by local people in a business owned by them, focused on serving them.

Viewed at ground level, each cooperative is a single stand-alone business, locally owned and locally governed. But when viewed from above — way above — each cooperative becomes an essential piece of an enormous patchwork of 3 million self-help businesses, from pole to pole, hemisphere to hemisphere.

It’s amazing to consider that a worldwide movement began 175 years ago because the high cost of foodstuffs prompted a small group of artisans in England to take matters into their own hands. They worked together to start their own grocery. They worked together to make it successful.

And most importantly, they worked together to articulate the principles that guided them in 1844, and still guide us in 2020.