Co-ops & Human Sustainable Development: Europe

 This document has been made available in electronic format
      by the International Co-operative Alliance ICA



1.   Introduction

As has been pointed out in the introductory section, Sustainable
Human Development is a concept of development whose global
objective is a change in the quality of development, oriented
towards meeting the basic needs of people, both present and
future, while respecting and renewing available natural

This concept is designed to combat the three major imbalances in
today's world,between the North and the South, between the rich
and the poor within societies, and between mankind and nature.

The resolutions approved in the different summit meetings during
recent years indicate that these crises cannot be overcome
separately, since they have common origins.

This report is designed to examine the policies being followed
and the results obtained by co-operative organisations in Europe
in connection with these three major imbalances.  The focus is
therefore placed on the environment, employment, and
international development.

2.   The Environment

Environmental factors have greatly influenced co-operative
development strategies during recent years, especially in Western
Europe, for two basic reasons.  

In the first place, public opinion in Europe is increasingly
aware of the risks of growth which is destructive of natural
resources.  Second, European co-operatives, both consumer and
producer, have become leaders in environmental issues.

Respect for the environment is part of the quality/price
relationship in terms of services provided by co-operatives, and
constitutes a distinctive and important factor in the
co-operatives' identity and image, which in turn is an essential
base for their future membership growth.

As well, policy and legislation in the European Union countries
have progressively incorporated this aspect of sustainable
development (even though the founding Treaty of Rome did not
establish the defence of the environment as one of the objectives
of the European Community).

The Fifth Programme "For a Sustainable and Durable Development",
proposed by the EC in 1992, and the White Paper "Growth,
Competition, and Employment" in 1994 both illustrate the European
desire to promote investment in practices and behaviour which are
not harmful to the environment.  The Commission has recognised
that the present development model is not sustainable, and that
the serious economic and social problems being encountered in the
Union today are the result of a structural under-utilisation of
the quality and quantity of the labour force, along with an
excessive exploitation of natural resources.

The White Paper believes it is necessary to put in place
immediately a systematic revision of policies, incorporating
ecological considerations with economic ones, so that prices will
include all external costs ("inefficiencies associated with
externalities").  The suggestions include changes in the
Community's fiscal policies, gradually moving away from taxes on
work towards ecological taxes based on the consumption of natural

The search for a higher level of responsibility concerning the
environment on the part of producers, retailers, and consumers
appears to be the direction taken by the EU countries in order
to bring about a sustainable development and increase the
international competitivity of European industry.  Ecolabel,
Ecoaudit, and strict recycling and environmental impact
requirements are the elements of this new environmental policy.

One can state with certainty that, in this regard, the European
co-operatives have often been ahead of their direct competitors. 
Within co-operatives the debate is intense, and one can say that
they have gone beyond the initial thinking of obtaining market
advantages (the point at which many of their competitors have
stopped) to a phase of coherent application,even if this is
gradual, due to the costs involved,of the different aspects of
environmentally-sensitive policy:  definition of strategies and
principles for action, establishment and quantification of goals,
introduction of work methods with respect to monitoring the
impact on the environment of investments, etc. 

This is occurring within co-operatives thanks to the
collaboration of thousands of members, the selection and
participation of co-operative suppliers and customers, ecological
information and education programmes, and the work performed by
quality-control laboratories.

One can refer to many examples in this regard, even if they cover
only a small fraction of the extensive action being undertaken:

-   the activities of Eurocoop, which has been the leader of the
Food Section of the "Consumer Consultative Committee" within the
European Union; thanks to the active participation of the heads
of quality-control laboratories, co-operatives have taken
positions which have resulted in the application of directives
regarding colouring agents, additives, aromatic products,
information labelling, packaging requirements, etc.

-   the initiatives of Co-op Switzerland and Migros, which have
contributed to a wide range of governmental policies, including
a packaging model (Ecoaudit) which has been adopted by the Swiss
Federal Office for the Environment.

-   the campaigns launched by the Italian consumer co-operatives,
'Stop the abuse of pesticides', and 'Let's repair the hole in
the sky', which resulted in their decision to remove sprays with
CFC from their assortment as early as 1989, well in advance of
requirements introduced by the Italian Parliament.

-   the introduction of a 'green' label, Nature Label, on 600
products by FDB in Denmark.

-   the strategy of KF, in Sweden, to reduce the harmful effect
of packaging and transport and to increase the use of rail
transport, which has now risen to 65 percent of total transport.

-   programmes of biological agriculture, organic farming, and
energy saving undertaken by many agricultural co-operatives.

-   ecological programmes undertaken in the tourism sector by
Finnish consumer co-operatives, who are the country's largest
hotel and restaurant operators.

-   the "Responsible Retailing" and "Ecoplan" programmes launched
in 1995 by CWS in the U.K., and by Euroski in Spain, supported
by a wide array of consumer information and training material.

These illustrative examples do not mean that co-operative action
in this area has been beyond reproach.  But it is nevertheless
clear that Western European co-operatives have made a sincere and
major commitment to environmental issues, without suffering any
competitive disadvantage.

The situation in the countries of Central and Eastern Europe, and
in the Commonwealth of Independent States, requires an additional
examination.  They find themselves today the inheritors of a
disastrous ecological situation, resulting from the
centralised-planning concept of 'the bigger the better'.  Their
challenge is therefore enormous, technically as well as

International assistance is therefore essential.  Other European
countries, particularly in the Nordic area, have already
committed themselves to extensive support. 

The forthcoming Conference of Ministers of the Environment, to
be held in Sofia in October 1995, should lead to the mobilisation
of the resources necessary for a global and coordinated plan of
action, giving priority to the development of 'clean'
technologies and facilitating the modification of existing models
of production, including the use of water and energy.

It is therefore necessary that the European co-operative
movements give higher priority to environmental issues in their
bilateral co-operation programmes in order to promote the
transfer of know-how and technology, and to seek additional
financial resources from the various financial agencies.

Positive examples of this kind of collaboration already exist. 
For example, among the programmes planned by the Co-op Network
for Co-operative Development in Eastern and Central Europe are
the provision of energy-saving, cold-storage equipment in
consumer co-operatives in the Czech and Slovak Republics;
energy-saving projects for housing co-operatives in these
countries, as well as in Estonia; and an environmental project
for co-operatives in the Baltic countries, financed by the Olof
Palme International Centre in Sweden.

3.   Employment and Social Integration

With respect to the social aspects of development, European
co-operatives find themselves operating within national economies
where growth alone cannot eliminate the problems of unemployment
and social exclusion that today affect a growing proportion of
the population.  The average unemployment rate in the countries
of the European Union has risen from four percent in 1971 to more
than 10 percent in 1993.

The situation is even more serious in some Eastern and Central
European countries, and in the CIS, where the social costs of
transition have been much higher than expected.  The World Bank,
for example, estimates that the percentage of people living in
poverty has risen from 5 to 17 percent in the Balkans and Poland,
from 3 to 21 percent in Russia, and from 2 to 12 percent in

As in the other European countries, it cannot be assumed that
economic growth will automatically lead to a reduction in poverty
and social exclusion.  This will depend on the direction of
future development.

A variety of efforts and approaches are underway in Europe to
deal with these problems.  The situation is not particularly
favourable, however, given the current reduction in the role of
the state and its capacity to act as a social shock-absorber, and
the difficulty in defining effective new policies.   

The European co-operatives, for their part, have rarely
contributed to the problem of unemployment by undertaking
large-scale lay-offs.  When they have been obliged to reduce
their workforce, they have generally supported the creation of
alternative employment.

As well, local co-operatives and their federations have often
been able to take advantage of new market opportunities to
undertake activities in new sectors'provision of material
services, health care, child care, services for the elderly and
the ill, intellectual and cultural activities, environmental
protection, and so on.  This has been done both by creating new
co-operatives from scratch and by transforming existing
enterprises into co-operatives.

Interesting examples can be found in France, Spain, Sweden, the
U.K. (ICOM), and in Italy (where there now exist 1,500
social-health co-operatives, and where an additional 150
enterprises have been saved through their transformation into
co-operatives as a result of supportive financial programmes).
These are, of course, limited results when compared with the
dimension of the problem in Europe.  Nevertheless, there are
indications that the current trend towards a greater role for the
private sector, compared to the public sector, will provide new
opportunities for this kind of co-operative development in the

If this is to happen, appropriate conditions must exist or be
created:  governmental policies which recognise the
characteristics of co-operatives and do not discriminate against
them; new forms of partnerships and alliances between
enterprises; a strong dialogue with local communities and trade
unions, coordinated at the local and national levels by the
federations representing co-operatives; and appropriate
instruments and financial resources to support the development
of these new kinds of co-operative enterprise.

In light of current conditions, the role of European co-operative
movements,especially in Central and Eastern Europe, where they
are engaged in a phase of entrepreneurial and institutional
reconstruction'is complex and difficult.  It will require a large
mobilisation and participation of the membership, who must see
that their co-operatives are contributing to meeting their basic
needs in exchange for their participation in sharing the risks
of the enterprise.  It will also require an efficient support
from the entire international co-operative movement.

4.   Growth and Solidarity

The last aspect of the concept of Sustainable Human Development
has to do with its world-wide dimension and the common interests
of people in all countries.

There cannot be any true Sustainable Human Development as long
as a large part of the world is deprived of employment, adequate
food, sources of energy, water, health care, and education.  It
is therefore very appropriate that the ICA,at the time of its
Centennial Congress, when the values and principles of the
co-operative movement for the next century are being reaffirmed
and adapted,should dedicate itself with renewed vigour to the
problems of under-development which affect such a large part of

It is equally appropriate that co-operative members be informed,
or rather reminded, of the dangers of under-development, the
human tragedies and suffering, as well as the destruction of
natural resources, and of the way in which they can contribute
to actions and policies in favour of Sustainable Human

The global dimension of Sustainable Human Development serves to
remind us of the important (although not exclusive) role that
European co-operative movements are playing on the world scene;
in Europe, to support the co-operatives in Eastern and Central
Europe and in the C.I.S.; and globally, to support co-operative
development in the countries of the South.  These actions
coincide with two of the present and future priorities of ICA

During 1994 ICA Europe worked with co-operative movements in
Africa to initiate new development strategies.  This activity
must continue and be strengthened through the mobilisation of
internal and external resources, which are particularly needed
in light of the difficult situation caused by current structural
adjustment programmes.  

Two areas of action should be emphasised in order to support the
development of self-managed, autonomous co-operatives in the
South: training of managers and board members through the
transfer of appropriate know-how; and the opening of commercial
markets, accompanied by technical assistance which will enable
co-operatives in the South to meet the standards required by
markets in the industrialised countries.  

The ICA's proposal to establish a special 'Trust Fund', on the
occasion of its Centennial Congress, is a worthy recognition of
the global nature of the world-wide co-operative movement and the
need for joint action.  It is an initiative which European
co-operative movements, known for their sense of solidarity,
should support through the provision of both technical expertise
and financial resources.  

August 1995