What is a Co-operative?

The Co-operative business structure:

There are many forms of organisation in the world, but only a select few are legally enabled to function fully as members of Australian society.

These include:

  • Companies listed on the stock exchange (publicly listed companies)
  • Companies in private ownership (Pty Ltd Companies)
  • Co-operatives
  • Associations
  • Partnerships
  • Sole Traders
  • Trusts

Of these available business structures, the Co-operative is hands down the most suited to a commons based economy, with a built-in set of values and principles which already support a commons type system and its structural social underpinnings. Co-operatives are rarely mentioned on government and legal websites explaining the available business structures.

In Australia, Co-operatives are divivded into two categories: 

  • Distributing: – is allowed to divide profits amongst its membership. Worker co-ops would want this.
  • Non-distributing: – is not allowed to do that. This is the “Not-for-profit” version of a co-op

The Co-operative in its present form was initiated by a group of poor weavers in the town of Rochedale, England, in 1844. They opened a general store which would provide an affordable alternative to poor quality, tampered with food and other goods to the membership community – even this basic service was not available at the time, in the depths of the industrial revolution.

Any suplus, or profit, was used to benefit the community.

Like the Union movement, the Co-operative movement was, and remains, an opposing force to that of empire, which now wears the face of global Capitalism, or Neo-liberalsim.

A highly successful movement, across the globe there are now around 3 million Co-operatives, with a membership of more than a billion. They have a combined turnover in the Trillions of (USA) dollars, employ 280 million people (ICA Figures, D2020-09-16).

Since 1895, Co-operatives have been represented internationally by the International Co-operatives Alliance (ICA).

The ethics, values and principles laid out by the ICA are enshrined in the Australian Co-operatives National Law, which is now harmonised across most Australian states:

Co-operative identity: Values, Ethics & principles

From the International Co-operatives Alliance


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


Co-operatives are based on the values of: 

  • self-help 
  • self-responsibility 
  • democracy
  • equality
  • equity
  • solidarity 


In the tradition of their founders, co-operative members believe in the ethical values of: 

  • honesty
  • openness
  • social responsibility
  • caring for others.

Principles: The co-operative principles are guidelines by which co-operatives put their values into practice.

1. Voluntary and Open Membership

Co-operatives are voluntary organisations, open to all persons able to use their services and willing to accept the responsibilities of membership, without gender, social, racial, political or religious discrimination.

2. Democratic Member Control

Co-operatives are democratic organisations controlled by their members, who actively participate in setting their policies and making decisions. Men and women serving as elected representatives are accountable to the membership. In primary co-operatives members have equal voting rights (one member, one vote) and co-operatives at other levels are also organised in a democratic manner.

3. Member Economic Participation

Members contribute equitably to, and democratically control, the capital of their co-operative. At least part of that capital is usually the common property of the co-operative. Members usually receive limited compensation, if any, on capital subscribed as a condition of membership. Members allocate surpluses for any or all of the following purposes: developing their co-operative, possibly by setting up reserves, part of which at least would be indivisible; benefiting members in proportion to their transactions with the co-operative; and supporting other activities approved by the membership.

4. Autonomy and Independence

Co-operatives are autonomous, self-help organisations controlled by their members. If they enter into agreements with other organisations, including governments, or raise capital from external sources, they do so on terms that ensure democratic control by their members and maintain their co-operative autonomy.

5. Education, Training and Information

Co-operatives provide education and training for their members, elected representatives, managers, and employees so they can contribute effectively to the development of their co-operatives. They inform the general public – particularly young people and opinion leaders – about the nature and benefits of co-operation.

6. Co-operation among Co-operatives

Co-operatives serve their members most effectively and strengthen the co-operative movement by working together through local, national, regional and international structures.

7. Concern for Community

Co-operatives work for the sustainable development of their communities through policies approved by their members.

From https://www.ica.coop/en/cooperatives/cooperative-identity 

Having said all this, a Co-operative is still like an empty bucket – what you put in is what you will get out. If we do not use careful and strategic design to create our coops, we are very likely to accidentally replicate the status quo in many key ways, and a great opportunity will have been missed. Again.

At CoCanberra, we promote the use of the Climate Co-op to help integrate and maintain benefits for both people and planet.