What is a Co-op?

In October 2018, I was invited to speak at the Midcounties Co-operative’s Young Co-operators’ Conference. This is an annual event which brings together school and college children from across the Midcounties to discuss important topics, and last year’s focus was plastic pollution. I prepared my talk, travelled to the Midlands, but what I discovered that day was very, very eye opening.

I was greeted by the friendliest, most welcoming people, passionate about changing their community for the better through their work with the Midcounties Co-op, and inspiring and empowering the next generation to be a part of that.

Chatting through how important protecting colleagues’ mental health is for the Midcounties Co-op with Chief Values Officer, Pete Westall, had me hooked on the Co-operative way of thinking.

I had heard about the Co-op, but wasn’t quite aware of how it operated, or indeed that there are several large Co-ops all across the UK. The Midcounties Co-op is the UK’s largest independent co-operative society, and its brands include grocery shops, Co-op Energy, Co-op Funeralcare and Travel.

So What is a Co-operative?

A co-operative is a business owned by its members, where people work together to share the profits and benefits.

Giving every member a say in how things are run, co-operatives are a kinder and more inclusive way of doing business, with a focus on giving back. Unlike a PLC, co-operatives exist to create value for their members, customers and the wider community. Decisions are taken democratically. Profits and rewards shared. Progressive and innovative, yet rooted in history, co-operatives stand for equality, opportunity and shared success.

Midcounties co-op

A Co-op doesn’t operate like a ‘normal’ business such as a PLC. It is owned by its members, and those members decide how it is run. It is values-driven, and answerable to the local community it serves. The finances in the business are completely transparent, and the profits are fed back into the local community, and into making positive changes in the business. How amazing is that.

In 2018, 94% of the Midcounties Co-op’s members said that tackling plastic pollution was a high priority for them. And so, the Midcounties Co-op were bound to do something about it. That’s where I came in.

I was invited to a meeting at Co-op House with Pete and CSR Manager, Mike Pickering. We chatted for hours about what it meant to operate as a co-op, the values, and their dedication to tackling single use plastic. I admit, I wasn’t completely clued up on how a co-op worked, and was absolutely blown away that a business could be used to create so much good. I felt determined that more people should know that there is another way to do business, and support co-operatives around the country. There and then I joined the 700,000 other Midcounties Co-operative members, and agreed to be a part of their campaign to tackle plastic pollution.

The campaign is called One Change, and it aims to tackle single use plastic at source through reduction of use in stores and branches, but also by education, helping members to pledge to make their own One Change in their lives. It also involves inspiring and educating young people in the member schools, and community events such as litter picks. I am ridiculously proud to be the Environmental Ambassador for this campaign, and my work with the Midcounties COOP so far has been phenomenally rewarding. Working with passionate people with a genuine interest in doing the right thing, and using business as a force for good.

So what have we done so far, and what is yet to come?

We have had several events already this year, including the Managers’ Conference where the focus of the afternoon, I was very pleased to see, was on mental health, and how to look after each other in the workplace.

The One Change campaign launched, and already we have had some wonderful pledges from individuals regarding their single use plastic usage. We are working hard to remove single use plastic from stores too, starting with offices, plastic bags in supermarkets and tubs at deli counters, among lots of other initiatives. The Midcounties’ own range – Best of Our Counties, which is sourced locally, will be a starting point to address plastics in own brand products.

The AGM saw the return of the schools which attended the Young Co-operators conference, who had created their own campaigns to reduce single use plastic in their schools, create a sculpture out of discarded plastic, and present their ideas and a video they had made to our judging panel. Each student was given a Klean Kanteen water bottle, and one school was awarded £500 to help continue their work in their school! Judging the competition was so tough, as the students were so engaged and passionate, and all the presentations were brilliant.

Young Members Forum at the AGM

We’ve been to Chipping Norton Primary school to make Eco-Bricks with the children. The “bricks”, made from plastic bottles filled with non-recyclable plastic, are being collected all over the midcounties, and will be used to make a turkey enclosure at a local animal sanctuary.

For World Environment Day, the Midcounties Co-op organised 20 community litter picks, including a River Avon clean up on SUPs and canoes, which was a lot of fun, and very eye-opening.

World Environment Day clean ups

After paddling through some of the inland waterways last year on my way up to the North of Scotland, I was horrified by how much waste I was seeing inland. I was determined to help connect the dots between the plastic we’re using in land, and that which is going out to sea through our waterways. I am absolutely loving my work with the Midcounties Co-op, and feel like the One Change campaign is doing just that – helping people to understand the importance of what we use on land, and empower people to make their own difference not just to their local environment, but to the oceans and planet as a whole, regardless of where we live.

I feel like everybody should be made aware of how a Co-operative works, so that you can get involved in your local one. They can shape how your community works, and you have a voice within the society. I want to shout from the rooftops about all the amazing stuff the Midcounties Co-operative is doing, but for now I’ll keep it in my blog!

More about the Midcounties Co-op’s One Change Campaign, and how you can make your pledge to reduce single use plastic, can be found here.

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