Is sustainability in the 'DNA' of co-ops?

I was intrigued by the headline of a recent article discussing the synergy between co-operation and sustainability. Apparently co-ops have the “DNA of sustainability”. What could that mean? What constitutes the DNA of co-operatives and of sustainability? The answer that I came to was values. Values represent our “guiding principles” and profoundly influence our attitudes and behaviour. This might not make them ‘DNA’ but it does, I think, catch the spirit of the headline.

The International Co-operative Alliance (ICA) explains clearly the values at the heart of co-operation:

“Co-operatives are based on the values of self-help, self-responsibility, democracy, equality, equity and solidarity. In the tradition of their founders, co-operative members believe in the ethical values of honesty, openness, social responsibility and caring for others”.

In relation to sustainability, Common Cause has done great work looking at how important values are when trying to encourage sustainable behaviour. The Common Cause Handbook draws together academic research and provides an overview of the values that we hold, and how they influence us. Over fifty values have been identified that appear to be consistent across cultures and it is possible to group these into four main categories based on how they relate to each other. The categories are: ‘self-transcendent’; ‘openness to change’; ‘self-enhancement’; and ‘conservation’. These can then be represented on a circle ‘self-transcendent’ opposite from ‘self-enhancement’, and ‘conservation’ opposite from ‘openness to change’ (see picture*). File 219What is interesting is that prioritising one self-transcendent value, like ‘helpful’, will also enhance other self-transcendent values. At the same time it suppresses the opposing self-enhancement values, like ‘ambitious’. Each of us can be motivated by any of the values, and this will vary over time, but particular values tend to dominate. Our tendency towards certain values can be affected by how often we are exposure to them.

If we want to promote sustainability then Common Cause argues that we need to be engaging people’s self-transcendent values. Many environmental campaigns have encouraged self-enhancement values, through schemes that promote money saving, or status, and this may bring short-term success. However, because this suppresses the self-transcendent values that we need to engage to encourage more sustainable behaviour, it is detrimental over the long-term. So, if self-transcendent values are central to sustainability, how does this link to the co-operative values?

Answering this requires some interpretation as co-operative values don’t map exactly onto values in the Common Cause work. The table below is an attempt at making the links, with the co-operative values in the first column being equated with values from Common Cause.   

Co-operative value

Values in Common Cause report


Independent; choosing own goals


Responsible; self-discipline


I don’t think that this is a value. Different interpretations of democracy could draw on very different values – social power and social justice would be two opposites. In terms of the type of democracy that co-operation is promoting I would say that key values are probably all the ones that are mentioned here plus: self-respect; freedom; and wisdom




Social justice


Loyal; sense of belonging. (This is an interesting one as (following Richard Sennett) solidarity can be interpreted as unity or as inclusion and I think that there a bit of both in co-operation.)




Broadminded; forgiving

Social responsibility and caring for others (I have put these two together as there are a lot of similarities)

Helpful; true friendship; honouring of elders; protecting the environment; a world at peace, unity with nature (this list could be longer. I have assumed that caring for others goes beyond other people)


It is not a surprise to find that most of these values are from the self-transcendent group. The exceptions are independent, choosing own goals, self-respect and freedom, which come from the openness to change group; and self-discipline and sense of belonging, which come from the conservation group.

So what does this mean?

For me there are three main lessons. First, maybe it is true to say that sustainability is in the DNA of co-operatives as the values that are the “guiding principles” for co-operation are also the ones that link to closely to sustainability. Looking at the level of values helps underpin the idea that there is a co-operative advantage in relation to sustainability. Second, it is useful to examine the co-operative values in relation to the wider research on values covered by Common Cause as it helps in understanding the meaning of the co-operative values. Finally, it emphasises the importance of the co-operative values and of using them to promote co-operatives.

Giles Simon commented recently on the dangers of “mainstreaming” co-ops. If mainstreaming means focusing overly on performance in terms of economics, “co-ops contribute £x amount to the economy”, and economic indicators, then I would certainly agree. Over emphasising finance may bring short-term benefits but, as the Common Cause work argues, over time it will undermine the very values that underlie co-operation. 


* This picture is from p.16 of the Common Cause Handbook


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