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Sharing and cooperation in the business world

06 December 2012

The concept of sharing is fundamental to the business sector, despite the huge challenges to creating an alternative economic model in the midst of a free-market, private enterprise system. Yet the co-operative movement is playing a key role in building sustainable businesses based on people and not profit. 

STWR often highlight the many and varied manifestations of sharing in the blogs and comments we post, from the religious and academic fields to grassroots movements and new economic alternatives. The age-old practice of sharing takes on myriad and diverse forms in the 21st Century, often in unexpected and easily overlooked ways. But if the principle of sharing is fundamental in finding a solution for the world's most pressing and interrelated crises, the corporate sector is by no means exempt from the necessary transformations that lie ahead in the creation of a more just and sustainable future.

Sharing in the business world has been in the limelight recently with the recent conclusion of the International Year of Cooperatives (IYC). At a large international conference held to mark the occasion at the United Nations, the overwhelming success stories of cooperatives were highlighted by attendees from both developing and developed countries. The delegates argued that the cooperative model of business could be an especially valuable tool in building sustainable, grassroots agricultural businesses in poor regions as well in the developed world, while it could also be one of the key answers to the global economic crisis.

It is of note that Co-operatives UK have begun to popularise and even research the concept of sharing in their work, as highlighted by their report on sharing across the UK, called The Great Sharing Economy. According to their study, eight out of 10 people in the UK said that sharing makes them happy, while a majority of people believe that sharing is good for the environment, and over half those interviewed said they would like to find ways of sharing their time and resources with their community more.

In a recent series in The Guardian that asked public figures how they would lead the world out of the climate predicament, Ed Mayo - secretary general of Co-operatives UK - said that it is time for the old idea of sharing to inspire us again. "Above all, we should build sharing in to our economy," he wrote. "The gap between rich and poor in the UK is at the highest since records began. Inequality is rife, with 50% of the nation's population owning just 1% of its wealth. We need to recognise forms of business that are good at sharing - such as co-operatives. Worldwide, there are three times as many member owners of co-operatives, sharing in profits, as there are individual shareholders. We all need a stake in a low-carbon economy."

There have been a spate of articles written recently that highlight how the co-operative movement is offering alternatives to the purely profit-driven economic model. For example, Hilary Wainwright and Richard Goulding argued in The Guardian that the economics of profit are facing a profound crisis of legitimacy and retaining "a deathly grip on the apparatus of the state", hence their proposal for a modern form of collaboration between the labour, co-operative and socialist movements in building an "economics based on people rather than profit".

An interview in Shareable magazine with Michael Johnson on the new edition of his book, ‘For All the People', also gives a compelling insight into the long history of cooperation, co-operatives and communalism in the US, and highlights how cooperatives could play a key role in the movement to reclaim and cooperatively manage the commons. Also in the US context, a recent article by Hannah Miller in Shareable argued that rural co-ops are based on humanistic business principles that are better for the community and more able to stand the winds of economic change, while offering an alternative economic model in the midst of "the blindingly obvious breakdown of our free-market, private enterprise system".

Further resources: 

The Co-operative Revolution from the New Internationalist - an illustrated history of the enduring appeal of this robust business model.

Cooperatives as Business Models of the Future by Thalif Deen, IPS News, 26th November 2012. 

'Individual Ownership is the No 1 Source of Inefficiency' by Ed Mayo, The Guardian, 30th September 2012. 

Co-ops help bring economics back to the people by Hilary Wainwright and Richard Goulding,  The Guardian, 7th November 2012. 

Lessons for Building a Co-operative Movement by Michael Johnson, Shareable, 26th November 2012.

Rural Coops Show the Way to Urban Job Growth by Hannah Miller, Shareable, 26th November 2012.