“A co-operative is a group of people acting together to meet the common needs and aspirations of its members, sharing ownership and making decisions democratically.” Co-operative movements exist all over the world, as groups and organisations dedicated to achieving democratic trading and enterprise. The Co-operative Group, a name which we all know as a local shop or bank, is one of the single largest movements in the world, comprising over 3750 retail outlets and over 70,000 employees world wide. But how did this movement begin? Origins of the Co-operative movement can be traced back to the Rochdale Pioneers who formed in 1844; they are credited for founding the modern movement which we know today, as an effort against poverty and to promote equality.


The Rochdale Pioneers, 1844 (Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Although there are records of many small, early co-operative movements from across the globe as early as the 15th century, the active and modern co-operative movement which currently exists attributes it’s founding to the Rochdale Pioneers as early as 1844. The Pioneers consisted of 28 artisans who formed the Rochdale Equitable Pioneers Society. Plagued by dire working conditions and poverty, these traders decided to band together to open a store in order to alleviate these pressures and benefit more people by making a group effort. This mindset is at the core of the movement’s ideology; all consumers are to be treated fairly and honestly, with all parties involved in all transactions to receive benefit. Any single entity involved in the transaction or sale of goods, seller or consumer, should be considered when distributing the benefit of said transaction. In addition, every single seller and customer was entitled to a say in how enterprise would be conducted – not one party’s view was more significant than any other. Initially this shop only opened for two nights each week, but within three months it grew substantially in order to become a full time store.


This new democratic model of trade and enterprise was declared officially in the Rochdale Principles of 1844. It outlined how the movement believed in open membership, democratic control, distribution of surplus in proportion to trade, payment of limited interest on capital, political and religious neutrality, cash trading (no credit), and the promotion of education. In an era of urbanisation and industrialisation in Britain throughout the 19th century, social welfare became a growing concern as poverty spread throughout the working class and wealth was distributed unfairly. Those who struggled to make ends meet were faced with harsh circumstances under the Poor Law of 1834, being admitted to workhouses where they were given basic provisions despite dreadful conditions. The Rochdale Pioneers created a new ideology of how trade should be conducted, which engineered trade and enterprise to benefit all people involved. Democratic methods were to be used, where all individuals reaped equal benefit from trading, and each person was entitled to have a say or vote on how practices should be managed. Although they have been later amended to keep up with social and political transformations throughout the centuries, these principles still lie at the core of the International Co-operative Alliance’s values, the global movement which employs over 250million people worldwide.


The formation of the Alliance proves the far reaching and extensive impact this movement has had on modern society. Co-operatives all over the world are uniting in order to provide a better social landscape for all individuals and communities. Currently, the movement is working towards the “2020 Challenge” in order to combat social injustice and inequality, unethical enterprise, and unsustainability. In the future, the movement hopes to be recognised as a leader in social, economic and environmental sustainability, the primary business model preferred by people, and the fastest growing form of enterprise.


Despite originating over 150 years ago, the Co-operative Movement has stuck by its core values outlined by the Pioneers in the Principles of 1844, growing in size and power to represent hundreds of millions of individuals all over the world. This movement, which originated in a poverty stricken society during a period of British industrialisation, has progressed across decades to ensure that the rights and privileges of all individuals and communities are respected and maintained in global enterprise.