Statement of the Cooperative Identity

International Cooperative Alliance (1895-1995)

The Statement of the Cooperative Identity (Cooperative Identity or Identity) consists of a Defining Statement, a set of seven Principles, and a set of ten Values softly divided into two groups. It is a living document, which has evolved over the past century via three collective revision processes and will undoubtedly be amended in the future. The current Cooperative Identity was approved at the Global Congress of the International Cooperative Alliance in Manchester, England during 1995. This remains the cornerstone of the canon of the Cooperative Movement, which must be both responsive to successive reinterpretations of cooperative philosophy as the context of its application changes, as well as sufficiently solid to serve as a foundation on which evolving philosophy and reflection build. With a single sentence Defining Statement, one to two sentences elaborating upon each Principle, and single-word Values, the Identity Statement is brief, relative to the long history and breadth of activity it represents.

Perhaps as somewhat of a consequence of the beguiling simplicity of the text, the Cooperative Identity has been leveraged superficially as a “checklist of institutional structures” “rather than as an integral part of a coherent philosophy” (MacPherson, 1995, 209). Accountability and claims to Cooperative Identity are assessed only in an ad hoc fashion, if at all. Over time, many have come to, consciously or not, defer to legal corporate status as a measure of Cooperative Identity – in part because those unfamiliar with the canon of the Cooperative Movement may be only aware of corporate status as an identifier. There is no mention of corporate status in the Cooperative Identity.

The worldview presented in this toolkit honors a slightly modified version of the defining Statement of the Cooperative Identity. The modifications are indicated in bold - 

“A cooperative is an autonomous association of persons united voluntarily to meet their common economic, social, and/or cultural needs and/or aspirations through a jointly-owned and democratically-controlled enterprise.”

The “and/or” modifications do not change the meaning or reach of the statement, they only serve to make it clearer. It is safe to assume the authors of the statement intended for its meaning to be just as expansive. However, making that expansiveness explicit is important in countering criticism of cooperatives that do not trade in financial capital, that only convene to meet social needs, or cannot be categorized as a “business.” “Cooperative ideology must be broad and flexible, rather than narrow and stringent [...] business is stringent [...] human society is broad” (Laidlaw, 32).

Of the three elements in the Cooperative Identity, the Principles are the most well known, however, it is the Values that are, perhaps, the most definitive element - “self-help, self-responsibility, democracy, equality, equity, solidarity, honesty, openness, social responsibility and caring for others.” In a seemingly paradoxical way, these are the most restrictive elements that require the most of any cooperative adherent, as they most readily break cooperativism free from conventional notions of “organization” and “business,” and, instead, strive towards a new standard and formation of society. Many cooperative practitioners will openly share that the Values are their favorite part of the Cooperative Identity.

In 2015, the International Cooperative Alliance published a document, Guidance Notes to the Cooperative Principles, which – for the first time – elaborated in length upon a portion of the Identity Statement in an official capacity. A review of the Guidance Notes is included later in this section.