Introduction to Cooperatives

Cooperatives are autonomous organizations formed by individuals who voluntarily collaborate to meet their common economic, social, and cultural needs and aspirations. These member-owned and democratically controlled enterprises operate on the principles of self-help, self-responsibility, democracy, equality, equity, and solidarity. The cooperative movement has a rich history, dating back to the early 19th century, with roots in the Industrial Revolution and the social and economic challenges it brought forth. Today, cooperatives exist in various sectors, including worker, consumer, producer, housing, and financial cooperatives. They play a significant role in promoting sustainable development, fostering economic growth, and addressing social inequalities. As cooperatives continue to evolve, they face both challenges and opportunities in adapting to changing market conditions, technological advancements, and regulatory frameworks. By adhering to their core principles and values, cooperatives can contribute to a more inclusive and resilient global economy (Birchall, 2013; ICA, 2021).

History and Evolution of Cooperatives

The history and evolution of cooperatives can be traced back to the early 19th century, with the establishment of the Rochdale Society of Equitable Pioneers in 1844, often considered the birth of the modern cooperative movement. This group of weavers and artisans in Rochdale, England, created a set of principles that have since guided the development of cooperatives worldwide. These principles include voluntary and open membership, democratic member control, member economic participation, autonomy and independence, education, training and information, cooperation among cooperatives, and concern for community.

Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, cooperatives expanded globally, adapting to various economic, social, and political contexts. The International Cooperative Alliance (ICA) was founded in 1895 to promote and support the cooperative movement, and it remains the largest global organization representing cooperatives today. In the 20th century, cooperatives played a significant role in the economic development of many countries, particularly in agriculture, housing, and financial services. The United Nations declared 2012 as the International Year of Cooperatives, recognizing their contribution to poverty reduction, employment generation, and social integration.

In recent years, cooperatives have continued to evolve, embracing new sectors such as renewable energy, digital technology, and social care. They have also become increasingly relevant in addressing global challenges such as climate change, inequality, and sustainable development (Birchall, 2013; ICA, 2021).

Types of Cooperatives

Cooperatives can be classified into various types based on their purpose, membership, and organizational structure. Worker cooperatives are owned and controlled by their employees, who share in the profits and decision-making processes. Consumer cooperatives, on the other hand, are owned by the customers who use their services or purchase their products, ensuring that the cooperative’s primary focus is on meeting consumer needs and preferences. Producer cooperatives are formed by producers, such as farmers or artisans, who collaborate to process, market, and distribute their products more efficiently. Housing cooperatives provide affordable and secure housing options for their members, who collectively own and manage the property. Financial cooperatives, including credit unions and mutual insurance companies, offer financial services to their members, often with more favorable terms than traditional banks. Each type of cooperative operates based on a set of principles and values, such as democratic governance, member economic participation, and concern for community, which guide their management and decision-making processes (ICA, 2021; Birchall, 2012).


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  • International Co-operative Alliance (ICA). (2021). Co-operative identity, values & principles. Retrieved from

Worker Cooperatives

Worker cooperatives are a distinct type of cooperative enterprise that is owned and democratically controlled by its employees. These organizations prioritize the welfare and interests of their worker-owners, who actively participate in the decision-making process and share the profits generated by the business. Worker cooperatives have been recognized for their potential to promote economic democracy, reduce income inequality, and foster a sense of community among their members (Erdal, 2012).

Globally, there are thousands of worker cooperatives operating in various industries, such as manufacturing, retail, and services. In the United States, for example, there are over 300 worker cooperatives employing more than 7,000 people (USFWC, 2020). In Europe, countries like Spain and Italy have a long tradition of successful worker cooperatives, with the Mondragon Corporation in Spain being one of the largest and most well-known examples (Mondragon, 2021).

Despite their potential benefits, worker cooperatives face several challenges, including access to capital, management skills, and market competition. However, recent innovations in cooperative development, such as multi-stakeholder cooperatives and platform cooperatives, offer new opportunities for growth and resilience in this sector (Scholz, 2016).


  • Erdal, D. (2012). Beyond the Corporation: Humanity Working. The Bodley Head.
    Mondragon Corporation. (2021). About Mondragon. Retrieved from
  • Scholz, T. (2016). Platform Cooperativism: Challenging the Corporate Sharing Economy. Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung.

Consumer Cooperatives

Consumer cooperatives are a type of cooperative organization that is owned and controlled by the people who use its products and services. These cooperatives aim to provide goods and services to their members at competitive prices while promoting democratic decision-making and social responsibility. Consumer cooperatives can be found in various sectors, including retail, food, housing, and utilities. One of the most well-known examples of a consumer cooperative is the REI (Recreational Equipment Inc.), an outdoor retail company in the United States, which is owned by its customers and operates on a cooperative basis.

The primary goal of consumer cooperatives is to meet the needs and aspirations of their members, rather than maximizing profits for external shareholders. This model allows for a more equitable distribution of benefits among members, as any surplus generated is typically reinvested in the cooperative or returned to members in the form of dividends or reduced prices. Consumer cooperatives also emphasize the importance of community engagement and environmental sustainability, often supporting local producers and adopting eco-friendly practices in their operations (Birchall, 2013; Novkovic & Webb, 2014).


  • Birchall, J. (2013). Resilience in a downturn: The power of financial cooperatives. International Labour Office.
  • Novkovic, S., & Webb, T. (Eds.). (2014). Co-operatives in a post-growth era: Creating co-operative economics. Zed Books Ltd.

Producer Cooperatives

Producer cooperatives are a type of cooperative organization that brings together independent producers to collectively process, market, and distribute their products. These cooperatives enable producers to pool their resources, share risks, and gain access to larger markets, thereby increasing their bargaining power and competitiveness. Producer cooperatives are prevalent in various sectors, including agriculture, fisheries, forestry, and handicrafts. For instance, in the agricultural sector, they play a crucial role in enhancing food security and promoting sustainable farming practices. According to the International Cooperative Alliance (ICA), there are approximately 3 million cooperatives worldwide, with a significant number being producer cooperatives. These cooperatives contribute to the livelihoods of millions of people and have a substantial impact on local economies. Moreover, they embody the cooperative principles of voluntary and open membership, democratic member control, member economic participation, autonomy and independence, education and training, cooperation among cooperatives, and concern for the community (ICA, 2021). In conclusion, producer cooperatives are essential in fostering economic growth, social development, and environmental sustainability.


Housing Cooperatives

Housing cooperatives are a unique form of homeownership that offer an alternative to traditional single-family homes and rental apartments. They are collectively owned and managed by their residents, who each hold a share in the cooperative corporation. This ownership structure allows members to have a say in the management and decision-making processes of their housing community, fostering a sense of collective responsibility and mutual support.

There are various types of housing cooperatives, including limited-equity cooperatives, market-rate cooperatives, and senior housing cooperatives. Limited-equity cooperatives are designed to provide affordable housing options for low- and moderate-income households, with restrictions on the resale value of shares to maintain affordability. Market-rate cooperatives, on the other hand, allow members to buy and sell shares at market prices, offering potential for financial gains. Senior housing cooperatives cater specifically to the needs of older adults, providing age-restricted communities with supportive services and amenities.

Housing cooperatives have been recognized for their potential to promote sustainable development, as they encourage community engagement, resource sharing, and long-term planning. Moreover, they can contribute to housing affordability and stability, particularly in urban areas with high housing costs (Birchall, 2013; Novy & Hammer, 2018).


  • Birchall, J. (2013). Resilience in a downturn: The power of financial cooperatives. International Labour Organization.
  • Novy, A., & Hammer, E. (2018). Cooperative housing and social cohesion: The role of linking social capital. European Urban and Regional Studies, 25(4), 431-446.

Financial Cooperatives

Financial cooperatives, also known as credit unions, are member-owned financial institutions that provide a range of financial services to their members, including savings, loans, and insurance products. These cooperatives operate on a not-for-profit basis, with the primary goal of promoting the financial well-being of their members rather than maximizing profits for shareholders. As of 2020, there were over 85,000 financial cooperatives worldwide, serving more than 274 million members and managing assets worth over $2.1 trillion (WOCCU, 2020).

One of the key features of financial cooperatives is their democratic governance structure, which ensures that each member has an equal say in the decision-making process, regardless of the size of their financial contribution. This democratic approach fosters a strong sense of community and solidarity among members, which can contribute to the long-term stability and resilience of these institutions. Moreover, financial cooperatives often focus on serving the needs of underserved populations, such as low-income individuals and those living in rural areas, thereby promoting financial inclusion and reducing income inequality (Birchall, 2013).


  • Birchall, J. (2013). Resilience in a downturn: The power of financial cooperatives. International Labour Organization.
  • World Council of Credit Unions (WOCCU). (2020). 2020 Statistical Report.

Cooperative Principles and Values

Cooperatives are guided by a set of internationally recognized principles and values that shape their identity and operations. These principles, established by the International Co-operative Alliance (ICA), include voluntary and open membership, democratic member control, member economic participation, autonomy and independence, education, training and information, cooperation among cooperatives, and concern for community. The values that underpin these principles are self-help, self-responsibility, democracy, equality, equity, and solidarity, along with ethical values of honesty, openness, social responsibility, and caring for others. These principles and values ensure that cooperatives prioritize the needs and interests of their members, promote democratic decision-making, foster equitable distribution of benefits, and contribute to sustainable development in their communities (International Co-operative Alliance, n.d.).


Governance and Management in Cooperatives

Governance and management in cooperatives operate under a democratic framework, ensuring that members have equal decision-making power and influence over the cooperative’s policies and strategies. This democratic approach is rooted in the cooperative principles, which emphasize member participation, autonomy, and democratic control (ICA, 2015). Typically, cooperatives have a board of directors elected by the members, who are responsible for setting the strategic direction and overseeing the management team’s performance. The board ensures that the cooperative adheres to its values, principles, and legal requirements while safeguarding the members’ interests (Cornforth, 2004).

The management team, led by a chief executive officer or general manager, is responsible for implementing the board’s decisions and overseeing the cooperative’s daily operations. They ensure that the cooperative achieves its objectives, maintains financial stability, and complies with relevant regulations (Spear, 2004). The relationship between the board and management is crucial for the cooperative’s success, as it requires a balance between strategic oversight and operational autonomy. In summary, governance and management in cooperatives work together to ensure democratic decision-making, adherence to cooperative principles, and the achievement of the cooperative’s goals while maintaining financial stability and regulatory compliance.


  • Cornforth, C. (2004). The governance of cooperatives and mutual associations: a paradox perspective. Annals of Public and Cooperative Economics, 75(1), 11-32.
  • ICA. (2015). Cooperative identity, values & principles. International Cooperative Alliance. Retrieved from
  • Spear, R. (2004). Governance in democratic member-based organisations. Annals of Public and Cooperative Economics, 75(1), 33-60.

Economic Impact of Cooperatives

The economic impact of cooperatives is multifaceted and significant, contributing to various aspects of local and global economies. Cooperatives generate employment opportunities, with the International Co-operative Alliance (ICA) estimating that they provide jobs to at least 10% of the world’s employed population (ICA, 2020). Additionally, cooperatives contribute to economic stability by promoting equitable distribution of income and wealth, as they are owned and controlled by their members, who share profits and benefits (Birchall & Ketilson, 2009).

Cooperatives also foster economic resilience, as they tend to be more stable during economic downturns compared to conventional businesses (Novkovic & Webb, 2014). This stability can be attributed to their focus on long-term sustainability and commitment to meeting members’ needs rather than maximizing profits. Furthermore, cooperatives play a crucial role in sustainable development, as they often prioritize social and environmental objectives alongside economic goals (UNDESA, 2016). In summary, the economic impact of cooperatives is substantial, encompassing job creation, income distribution, economic stability, and sustainable development.


  • Birchall, J., & Ketilson, L. H. (2009). Resilience of the Cooperative Business Model in Times of Crisis. International Labour Organization.
  • ICA. (2020). Cooperatives and Employment: A Global Report. International Co-operative Alliance.
  • Novkovic, S., & Webb, T. (2014). Co-operatives in a Post-Growth Era: Creating Co-operative Economics. Zed Books.
  • UNDESA. (2016). Cooperatives: The Power to Act for a Sustainable Future. United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs.

Legal Framework and Regulation of Cooperatives

The legal framework and regulation of cooperatives vary across countries, but generally involve a combination of national and regional legislation, as well as adherence to international cooperative principles. National laws often provide the foundation for cooperative formation, governance, and operation, while regional regulations may address specific aspects such as taxation, financial reporting, and sector-specific requirements. Internationally, cooperatives are guided by the principles and values established by the International Cooperative Alliance (ICA), which emphasize democratic governance, member participation, and social responsibility. Additionally, cooperatives may be subject to oversight by regulatory bodies, such as financial cooperatives being supervised by central banks or financial authorities. Compliance with these legal and regulatory frameworks is essential for cooperatives to maintain their unique status and benefits, while also contributing to their overall stability and sustainability in the global economy (ICA, 2021; Hansmann, 1999; Birchall, 2013).

International Cooperative Organizations

International cooperative organizations play a crucial role in promoting and supporting the cooperative movement worldwide. Some notable examples include the International Co-operative Alliance (ICA), which is a global organization representing cooperatives from various sectors and regions, with over 300 member organizations from over 100 countries. Established in 1895, the ICA aims to promote the cooperative model, facilitate knowledge exchange, and advocate for favorable policies and regulations (ICA, n.d.).

Another significant organization is the World Council of Credit Unions (WOCCU), which represents credit unions and financial cooperatives globally, providing support in areas such as technical assistance, advocacy, and development projects (WOCCU, n.d.). Additionally, the International Cooperative and Mutual Insurance Federation (ICMIF) focuses on the cooperative and mutual insurance sector, offering services such as market intelligence, networking opportunities, and advocacy (ICMIF, n.d.). These organizations, among others, contribute to the growth and sustainability of cooperatives, fostering collaboration and innovation in the pursuit of sustainable development and social impact.


Challenges and Opportunities for Cooperatives

Cooperatives face several challenges in the current economic and social landscape, including increased competition, regulatory constraints, and difficulties in accessing capital. The competitive market environment, driven by globalization and technological advancements, has put pressure on cooperatives to adapt and innovate to maintain their market share and relevance (Birchall, 2013). Additionally, cooperatives often face regulatory constraints that may limit their growth and expansion, as they are subject to specific legal frameworks and regulations that differ from those governing traditional businesses (ILO, 2018).

Despite these challenges, cooperatives also have unique opportunities to contribute to sustainable development and social inclusion. As democratic, member-owned organizations, cooperatives are well-positioned to address the needs of their members and communities, fostering local economic development and social cohesion (UN, 2018). Furthermore, cooperatives can play a crucial role in promoting environmental sustainability, as they often prioritize long-term benefits over short-term profits (ICA, 2015). The growing interest in alternative economic models and the increasing demand for ethical and sustainable products and services present significant opportunities for cooperatives to expand their reach and impact in the global economy (OECD, 2017).


  • Birchall, J. (2013). Resilience in a Downturn: The Power of Financial Cooperatives. ILO.
  • ILO (2018). Cooperatives and the World of Work Series No. 10. International Labour Organization.
  • UN (2018). Cooperatives and the Sustainable Development Goals. United Nations.
  • ICA (2015). Blueprint for a Cooperative Decade. International Cooperative Alliance.
  • OECD (2017). A New Generation of Cooperatives: Innovation in Social Inclusion. Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

Case Studies of Successful Cooperatives

Several successful cooperatives serve as exemplary case studies, demonstrating the potential of this business model. Mondragon Corporation, based in Spain, is one of the largest worker cooperatives globally, with over 80,000 employees and a presence in various industries, including finance, retail, and manufacturing. Established in 1956, Mondragon has consistently prioritized worker welfare and democratic decision-making, contributing to its long-term success and resilience (Mondragon Corporation, n.d.).

Another notable example is The Greenbelt Cooperative, an American agricultural cooperative that has been operating since 1934. Comprising over 1,600 family farms, Greenbelt focuses on sustainable farming practices and fair compensation for its members, ensuring both environmental and economic sustainability (Greenbelt Cooperative, n.d.).

In the financial sector, the Desjardins Group, a Canadian cooperative financial group, has been providing banking and insurance services since 1900. With over 7 million members and clients, Desjardins is the largest federation of credit unions in North America, demonstrating the viability of cooperative models in the financial industry (Desjardins Group, n.d.).

These case studies highlight the diverse applications and success of cooperatives across various sectors and geographical locations, emphasizing their potential for sustainable development and inclusive growth.


The Role of Cooperatives in Sustainable Development

Cooperatives play a significant role in promoting sustainable development by fostering economic growth, social inclusion, and environmental protection. As member-owned and democratically controlled enterprises, cooperatives prioritize the needs and interests of their members, contributing to the achievement of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). They provide employment opportunities, enhance income distribution, and promote social cohesion, thereby reducing poverty and inequality (ILO, 2018). Moreover, cooperatives often adopt environmentally responsible practices, such as resource conservation and waste reduction, contributing to climate change mitigation and sustainable resource management (UNDESA, 2016).

In addition to their direct impact on local communities, cooperatives also influence policy-making and global development agendas through their participation in international cooperative organizations, such as the International Cooperative Alliance (ICA) and the International Labour Organization (ILO). These organizations advocate for the recognition and support of cooperatives as key actors in achieving sustainable development, emphasizing their potential to address pressing global challenges, such as food security, energy access, and social protection (ICA, 2020). Thus, cooperatives play a crucial role in advancing sustainable development by combining economic viability, social responsibility, and environmental stewardship in their operations and governance.

Future Trends and Innovations in Cooperatives

The future of cooperatives is marked by several trends and innovations that aim to address contemporary challenges and capitalize on emerging opportunities. One significant trend is the increasing adoption of digital technologies, which enables cooperatives to streamline operations, enhance communication, and improve member engagement (Bauwens & Kostakis, 2014). Additionally, the growing focus on sustainability and social responsibility has led to the emergence of green cooperatives, which prioritize environmental stewardship and ethical practices (Giovannucci et al., 2014).

Another notable development is the rise of platform cooperatives, which leverage the sharing economy model to create more equitable and democratic alternatives to traditional platforms (Scholz, 2016). Furthermore, cooperatives are increasingly collaborating with other organizations, both within and outside the cooperative movement, to foster innovation and address complex global challenges (ICA, 2020). Lastly, the evolving legal and regulatory frameworks for cooperatives, particularly in the context of international cooperation, are expected to shape their future growth and development (Cracogna et al., 2013).


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Category: Legal