Consumerism and the Co-operative Movement in Modern British History: Taking Stock

October 29, 2009

This book addresses a neglect of the Co-op in historical writings and business history. Fourteen chapters - loosely organised into the three themes of the postwar decline, ideologies and identities, and consumerism and material culture - address issues such as consumerism, links to other movements such as trade unions, international comparisons, the progressive Women's Co-operative Guild, and specific issues of product quality, industrial design, advertising/marketing cultures, traditions of consumer protection and fair trade.

In 1962, a quarter of the British population were Co-op members, and the organisation employed half a million people. Today its market share is down to about 4 per cent, and the Co-op is not generally considered an innovator. But it remains much more than a shop, with its membership democracy, social and community activities, and a commitment to a fairer society based on mutuality.

The early part of the book explores how internal and external factors led to the Co-op's postwar decline. Internally, there was a failure to respond to the changing tastes of a growing consumer society, and traditional strengths in the declining North were offset by weakness in the suburbs of the South. Its democratic governance suffered from a declining, ageing membership. The Co-op lacked integration, composed as it was of many underperforming small and medium societies, with less integration and standardisation than comparable retailers.

Externally, it faced cultural and demographic shifts in the industrial working class; increased competition; postwar educational changes towards a meritocratic society, and greater social mobility offering alternatives to good working-class students.

Several contributions to this volume discuss the co-operative movement in relation to other currents in society and its role internationally. Co-operative development seems "path dependent": in the Netherlands, Belgium, France, Germany and Austria, consumer co-operatives collapsed, but in Finland and Switzerland, 21 per cent and 16 per cent respectively of the gross domestic product comes from co-operative trading.

International comparisons allow a reinterpretation of consumer co-operatives as social movements. The international movement (currently with 900 million members) reveals diverse experiences in relation to labour and social democratic movements such as trade unions and producer co-operatives as well as different ideological positions: the Italian movement, for example, has socialist, social democrat and more conservative Christian democratic co-ops organised as separate federations. Links to the trade union movement are examined in a chapter on Ireland's National Union of Railwaymen, which was closely involved in the development of consumer co-operatives.

A number of chapters consider the progressive role of the Co-op, particularly the Women's Guild, an intellectually fertile heart of the movement. By the early 20th century, the guild developed into a radical and strongly pacifist independent organisation promoting a socialist, feminist agenda, including equal pay.

The extent to which innovation occurred is a recurring theme - the London societies pioneered self-service in the 1940s, and by 1957, 60 per cent of self-service stores were run by the Co-op. In other fields, though, innovation is less impressive, lacking diffusion through the movement. Despite some highlights, there was depressing mediocrity in design quality, product ranges, store layouts and sales techniques. In the early days of marketing and advertising, the Co-op was a major initiator of brand marketing, but it lost its way after the Second World War.

The Co-op has a better record of defending consumer interests, as one chapter argues, especially during the two world wars when it introduced rationing systems to ensure fair distribution; and through its parliamentary work, in which the Co-op Party was important both as a voice in Parliament and in campaigning for consumer rights. But the Co-op's role has been overtaken by the growth of bodies such as the Consumers' Association.

In fair trade, as two chapters describe, the Women's Guild and an important collaboration with Oxfam helped rationalise inherent conflicts between consumers and producers. From the early 1990s, fair trade helped highlight the Co-op difference; by 2004, the group had one third of all fair-trade sales in grocery outlets. In 1992, the Co-op Bank powerfully demonstrated business and ethics synergies with its ethical policy.

A number of strands of recent history that are not well covered in this volume allow reflections on the Co-op's future. A reappraisal of the importance of mutuals in our economy and society gives hope that fair trade and a return to community shopping can preserve this still-important force. There are also intellectual currents that lend support to the Co-op case, such as the reappraisal of Emile Durkheim's concept of organic solidarity, Robert Putnam's analysis of social capital, and the growing research on wellbeing that emphasises greater participation and equality.

Consumerism and the Co-operative Movement in Modern British History: Taking Stock

Edited by Lawrence Black and Nicole Robertson. Manchester University Press. 2pp, £60.00. ISBN 9780719076848. Published 1 July 2009

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