Public Awareness of Co-ops a Complex Issue

By Kenzie Love

The Canadian Centre for the Study of Co-operatives’ report on the top co-op issues of 2021 came out earlier this year, and awareness or rather lack thereof of the co-operative model ranked as the top issue facing co-operatives for the fourth year running. As one respondent to the survey observed, “we can’t tackle any of the other issues on the list if policy makers and citizens don’t understand the value of co-operation in our society.” 

The respondent is hardly alone in holding this perspective. Lack of awareness is often cited as a major barrier for the co-op movement, on matters ranging from post-secondary education to co-op conversions, which makes it worthwhile to dig a little deeper into the issues at hand. As Karen Miner of the Centre for International Co-operative Management at Saint Mary’s University observes in a 2016 paper: “Why do we expect there to be ‘public awareness of the identity of the co-operative enterprise model’? Or, at the very least, what do we mean by this statement?”

“Awareness” is certainly a broad term when it comes to co-operatives. According to the Saskatchewan Co-operative Association, 21 million Canadians belong to co-operatives. As the co-op issues report found, however, “Even for members of the public who may know what a co-operative is, respondents observed they can be largely apathetic or uninterested in understanding the benefits of the co-operative model, how the model would benefit local consumers and their communities, or how co-operatives could be in harmony with many people’s core value systems.” 

It’s easy, therefore, for those in Canada’s co-op sector to blame a lack of awareness, however it’s defined, for the fact that, as Miner notes, “overall penetration of co-operative enterprises in the economy is low.” But as Miner further observes, this lack of awareness seems less striking when one considers the likelihood that “the average citizen does not understand the inner workings of the market economy that dominates economic activity in many of our countries and does not give much consideration to the most powerful enterprise model – the publicly traded corporation. If the public is not fixated on the pervasive enterprise model, why would we expect them to think about other models: employee owned business, family business, or any other form of enterprise, including the cooperative model?”

As Miner’s paper argues, “when looking at survey data, it is not obvious that public awareness is a problem,” citing findings that Canadians would generally choose to patronize a co-op over a chain store if given the opportunity. Such opportunities, however, can be scarce, which is why Miner believes the key to raising awareness lies less in principle five (education, training, and information), than in principle three (member economic ownership). “The most important contribution by co-operatives to a sustainable future,” she writes,  “is through growth in the use of the co-operative enterprise model over capitalist models.”

This naturally raises the question of how to achieve such growth. Miner believes it will follow from a better understanding of the co-op model within the sector itself, which she notes doesn’t always take principle five to heart within its own operations, as well as a more intensive focus on the co-op model in business schools. 

To both help grow the co-op sector and help make it better understood (internally and externally), co-operatives can tell their stories while highlighting the fact that they are co-ops and the value this brings to their members and communities.  CWCF shares on its website how the Statement of Co-operative Identity, as applied to worker co-ops, sets them apart from capitalist businesses.  Some excellent examples of our members telling their stories with this lens are found on the websites of Just Us! Coffee Roasters Co-op and the Home Care Workers Co-op of Peterborough. 

If you would like to go deeper, organizations providing co-operative education include the Saint Mary’s International Centre for Co-operative Management, the CoopZone Network (training for co-op developers), and Freedom Dreams Co-operative Education (advocates for the sustainability of BIPOC-led co-operation).  Last but not least, CWCF’s Worker Co-op Academy provides education and coaching to launch worker co-ops.