The Co-operative Mission and Identity in the 21st Century
Co-operatives have a strong history in collective solving of economic and social challenges. Through times, co-operatives have been a channel for change and affecting economic and societal conditions. The times are changing, and we are facing, for example, economic crisis after COVID, and increasing polarization in many parts of the world. Considering the circumstances, the modern mission and identity of co-operatives becomes interesting. While co-ops have a wide reach and economic weight also at the time being, there are alarming signs that the co-op philosophy might be forgotten, or at least co-operative identity is becoming blurred and similar to Investor-Owned-Firms (IOFs).
In this study, we explore how co-operative managers interpret the mission and identity of co-operatives today and what are the needs that the co-operatives meet. We seek to interpret the responses in relation to the co-operative literature and the original mission and identity of co-operatives and thus, the study aims to understand if the mission and identity of co-ops have changed.
We utilize qualitative textual data gathered in interviews with 35 leaders of consumer and producer owned co-operatives in Finland.
In our analysis, we find that the managers refer to the specific features of co-operatives, but a structured and comprehensive understanding of them seems limited. However, the managers clearly recognize that the co-ops have their own characteristics related to the value base of the co-op movement and principles, as well as regional and long-term impact. The business role of a co-op is perceived as natural and evident, whereas the understanding of the role of the member community is rather limited and variable. Competition has increased and the business role of the co-operatives is being emphasized. As a result, co-operatives are seen to have become very similar to the IOFs and thus, the co-op identity seems blurred in relation to the original mission of co-operatives. Paradoxically, however, the discourse of co-operatives’ originality and thus, identity is reinforced when the respondents compare co-operatives with the IOFs. In this context, the mission of co-operatives is seen as highly original, clearly distinguishing co-operatives from other actors that are perceived as not so responsible and sustainable.
Interestingly, there is a dichotomy and partly contradictory attitude towards the co-op ideology: For some it represents the true and desirable philosophy that guides operations, albeit somewhat hidden and forgotten. Others, on the other hand, interpret it as old-fashioned and a little naive, a speech that romanticizes the past of co-operatives.
Another perspective that the data permits, sets a paradox: on one hand the co-operative idea is seen as extremely current and appealing, and capable of responding to the value climate of our time and the current needs of the people, economies, and societies. On the other hand, it is seen as outdated and it is difficult for the interviewees to see how combining the social needs of members with profitable business would be possible. Where the business role is well understood and its direct benefits to individual members are visible and tangible, the co-op ideology and the role of the member community seems to be bundled into clusters of large and abstract themes that are desirable but very challenging to tackle at the level of an individual or by an individual co-op (e.g., responsibility, sustainability, climate change, social problems). However, according to the data, in these abstract themes lies the potential of co-ops in the current time and also in the future.
The respondents were unanimous that there is a place for co-operatives in the corporate field and possibly even a growing need in the current environment and in the future as well. Because of their value base, co-operatives are interpreted as being more natural in playing a role in solving both local and global problems than business forms with different earnings logic and mission. Crystallization and re-discovery of the co-operative mission and identity are needed to grasp the opportunities of the current environment.