Cooperatives and Sustainability: An investigation into the relationship

Last month, the International Cooperative Alliance (ICA) held their annual conference in Cape Town. One the presentations at this conference included reporting on the results of a partnership project, between Community Research Connections and the Sustainability Solutions Group, that investigated the relationship between the cooperative model and sustainable development. This research employed a unique methodology to compare key concepts distilled from seminal literature on sustainability to (firstly) the cooperatives principles and (secondly) websites and annual reports from various cooperatives around the world. As this was a global scan, the study was limited in the manner that it did not visit the cooperatives on-the-ground and thus could not validate whether cooperatives are actually acting in a sustainable manner; however, this work served as an initial step to see if cooperative model inherently leads to thinking and speaking about sustainability.

Some of the main observations from the research include:

  1. Co-operatives are involved in the social, economic and environmental dimensions of sustainability.
  2. The co-operative principles are more closely aligned with the social dimensions of sustainability.
  3. Similarly, co-operatives websites and annual reports (overall) most strongly related to social aspects of sustainability.
  4. In communicating their efforts on sustainability, co-operatives understate their efforts on Principles 1, 2 and 3.
  5. A co-operative is sustainable when it is an economically viable business that fully implements the seven co-operative principles, and maintains or regenerates the ecosystem in which they are embedded.
  6. Co-operative associations lag behind co-operatives in advancing a comprehensive sustainability agenda.
  7. Of the cooperative principles, concepts related to principle 5 (education, training, knowledge sharing), principle 6 (cooperation among cooperatives), and principle 7 (sustainable community development) were strongly communicated.
  8. Cooperatives websites highlighted sustainability concepts, whereas in the annual reports, sustainability concepts were discussed in context with items (e.g., items relating business operations).
The report can be downloaded from Sustainability Solutions Group's website here, and the presentation on the research can be downloaded from here.