Origins of the Cooperative
The first signs of the cooperative can be traced to Europe against a backdrop of ideological change in the 19th century.
The ideas of equality and democracy juxtaposed with the harsh conditions of the industrial revolution making partnership and reciprocity relevant values for a growing population.
Within this context, industrial and agricultural cooperatives were successfully founded in the United Kingdom and France.
Symbolically, the establishment of consumer cooperatives began in 1843 with a failed workers' strike at a textile factory in the English town of Rochdale.
The workers demanded a raise in wages and reduced work hours (which were previously unlimited and without a weekly rest day). The strike failed completely - many workers were laid-off and the salaries of those remaining were reduced.
The economic hardship of the workers and the understanding that shared economic cooperation could reduce the cost of living, led a group of 28 workers to unite together and establish the first consumer cooperative.
In December 1844, the cooperative was named "ROCHDALE EQUITABLE PIONEERS”. The group established a basic food store which opened twice a week and offered a small selection of products: flour, sugar, butter, oats and candles. After only three months their activities expanded to also include tea and tobacco.
Shortly after, the success of the cooperative drew thousands of new members who joined the 28 founding members. In the following years, hundreds of cooperatives were founded throughout the United Kingdom and around the world.
The founders of the cooperative in Rochdale sought to improve their families’ standard of living in the long-term, as opposed to simply the weekly shopping basket.
They decided that part of the profit be devoted to the establishment of schools, libraries and reading rooms. They recognized education was the main tool that enabled personal development, a contribution to society and provision for their family.
This was at a time before the enactment of compulsory education and working laws and when children still went to work early in their childhood. Even basic studies were considered luxuries, reserved for aristocrats and the wealthy new industrial class.
The ‘Rochdale Principles’ were written by the Rochdale Pioneers – founders of the world’s first consumer cooperative.
The document contains three principles which continue to be relevant in global cooperatives today:
The ideals include selling at fair prices on the open market, being honest and transparent with customers and that profits generated are to be distributed fairly to members.
The cooperative is self-financed and generates sufficient financial reserves.
Principle of Equality
All members within the cooperative have voting rights, with equal rights for men and women. The cooperative maintains anti-discrimination policies and is neutral in matters of politics and religion whilst giving full support to cultural activities.
These principles have been updated, changed and adjusted over the years but the core ideals remain.