Many of us hear ‘co-op’ and think of a supermarket, but a co-operative is a type of business structure. The well-known high street grocery store is a brand among many co-ops, all celebrated during Co-op Fortnight. In 2023, it’s happening between Monday 19 June and Sunday 2 July.

What are co-ops?

Co-ops do business differently. They are owned, controlled and run by and for their members. All members have equal voting rights on a ‘one member, one vote’ basis, regardless of how much capital they put into the business. Profits are either re-invested or distributed to the members.

Co-ops share internationally agreed principles based on fairness, equality and social justice, aimed at creating sustainable enterprises that generate long-term jobs and prosperity. The earliest recorded co-op is the Fenwick Weavers’ Society, dating to 1761. However the founders of the modern co-op movement were the Rochdale Pioneers. In 1844 they set out the principles that underpin the way all co-operatives work today.

The first Co-operative Congress was held in London in 1895 with delegates from Argentina, Australia, Belgium, England, Denmark, France, Germany, Holland, India, Italy, Switzerland, Serbia, and the USA.

There are now an estimated three million co-ops across the world, with around one billion members, employing 250 million people. Co-op Fortnight is an annual chance to celebrate how co-ops make a difference to people, communities and the wider economy. This year the celebrations culminate on the International Day of Co-ops, on Saturday 1 July.

Passion and pride in Sandwell

Here in Sandwell, we’re thinking about the great co-ops that bring extra value to our region. These include the West Brom Building Society, Tipton & Coseley Building Society, Heat Treatment 2000 and 6 Towns Credit Union. Also SIPS Education – a provider of services to schools.

Brian Cape, chief executive of SIPS Education and a Sandwell Business Ambassador, told us about the setup and ethos of SIPS Education:

“Our organisation was created ten years ago, through a groundbreaking collaboration between Sandwell Council and the schools of the Sandwell. SIPS supports hundreds of schools in the Black Country, the West Midlands and beyond, providing a wide range of services that include schools catering; IT services; HR support; careers development; governance services; schools finance and safety management. SIPS also delivers the music service for schools across the borough, with support from Arts Council England.

“I’m so proud to lead an organisation with the sole purpose of supporting schools, children and communities. Not being driven by the need to make a profit for shareholders means that we can provide the best support to education as possible.

“We’re governed by representative headteachers as members, and our 370+ colleagues are considered stakeholders in the organisation. They are also represented on the Board.

“Our recent colleague survey demonstrated that our teams overwhelmingly feel SIPS is a good place to work. Our people feel it’s important to be able to put schools (members) first and we’re proud to be part of an organisation that doesn’t make profits from children.

“Passion and pride – to be part of a movement, rather than a regular business – is what inspires us all.”

Find out how to start a new co-op by visiting the Co-operatives UK website.

Article Credit: Business Growth Team at Think Sandwell / Sandwell Council