Co-operatives – Edinburgh’s democratic economy

To celebrate International Co-operatives Day, we look at how local co-operatives provide housing, food and services as people-centred enterprises that aim to change the world.

When asked “what is a co-op?”, many people immediately think of the Co-op supermarket chain or Scotmid. However, these large retail co-operatives are just two examples out of around 600 different co-ops that thrive in every sector of Scotland’s economy.

So, what makes co-operatives different from other businesses and organisations? You can read the definition at the International Co-operative Alliance, but here’s a quick rundown:

  • Co-ops are owned and democratically controlled by their members
  • Each member has one equal vote, regardless of their financial stake
  • Co-ops are economic enterprises – profits are reinvested or distributed to members
  • Each co-op is independent
  • Co-ops look after their members
  • Co-ops work together with each other
  • Co-ops are social and environmental activists

Co-operatives allow people to collectively take control of their lives, and to keep the economic and social benefits of their activities within their communities. Here are some local examples, click on their links to find out more:

Housing co-ops such as Lister and West Granton provide social housing for hundreds of resident members with democratic control that most housing association residents can only dream of. At Edinburgh Student Housing Co-op over 100 students members run their own accommodation block and facilities at a fraction of the usual rent. Several smaller housing co-ops around Edinburgh comprise a single communal house, and a movement towards co-housing is gathering pace.

Independent worker-owned co-ops provide jobs for their members as people-centred businesses. They operate across retail, wholesale, manufacturing, care, service and IT sectors. There are local shops like New Leaf, The Gull’s Grocery, and Edinburgh Bicycle Co-op. Tech service businesses with worker members in Edinburgh include Digital Commons Co-op, Graphics Co-op, Open Data Services and Media Co-op.

Community Benefit Societies combine social enterprise with co-operative democracy. The community greengrocer Dig-in Bruntsfield and the Bridgend Farmhouse resource centre use this model.

Lauriston Farm and Rhyze Mushrooms grow food in the city and run education workshops. Tripod Training provides social activism training. SHRUB Co-op run a zero-waste hub with various activities on offer.

Community-owned renewable energy co-ops such as Harlaw Hydro and Edinburgh Community Solar Co-op generate funding for local projects as well as a return on investment for their members.

These examples show the diversity of Edinburgh’s co-ops, but there are too many to mention them all here.

Co-operatives are a growing global movement that anyone can join. You can become a member of a retail or community co-op. You can save money and obtain a loan as a member of a Credit Union.

If you’re thinking of starting a business, saving a local community asset, getting together with others to buy in bulk or live collectively, you could form a co-operative. There’s help, information and funding on offer for anyone thinking of setting one up. You can talk to an existing similar co-op for some pointers and check out these organisations:

(International Co-operatives Day is celebrated around the world by the co-ops who employ around 10% of the global workforce.)