The high level of political support for co-operatives is to be welcomed, so long as the politicians who voice it are clear about what co-operatives are and why they work. I have been working in co-operative research for nearly ten years now, mainly through Cardiff Institute for Co-operative Studies and the UK Society for Co-operative Studies.

There are three reasons I see co-operatives forming part of the green economy. First, the ensure equity, since the value of people's work stays with them, rather than being extracted by owners of capital such as shareholders and entrepreneurs. Second, they tend to have a natural balance in terms of expansion and so do not grow out of control as is the tendency amongst capitalist businesses. The natural size for a co-operative is no larger than the number of people who can comfortably make decisions together.

The third reason is about economic efficiency. The struggle for value and resources between capital and labour actually prevents rather than encouraging innovation. We can see this clearly in the example of windpower, which is being delayed by opposition to planning permission from those who will lose their view but now be compensated financially. Community owned renewables are unlikely to meet this sort of opposition, as I argue in an academic paper called Entrepreneurial Energy (pdf, 105 K).

Statue of Robert Owen outside the Co-operative Bank in ManchesterIn the last half of the twentieth century, the co-operative movement struggled to maintain its identity against the onslaught of market ideology, but it has been in resurgent form in recent years and has demonstrated particular resilience in the face of financial crisis, largely the result of its alternative business model that does not focus primarily on capital.

The latest figures for UK co-operatives show that from 2007 to 2009 turnover increased from £12.7 to £16.3bn, with membership increasing from 8.2m to 9.5m. From insurance to a pint in the pub, from internet to food shopping, there is always a co-operative alternative and switching your life out of the competitive, capital-driven economy into the co-operative, ethical economy is an important contribution you can make to building the green economy.

You can find some of the presentations I use when teaching about co-operatives and social enterprises on the page.

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