Cooperative History & Modern Statistics

Where did cooperation first start?

It could be argued that human cooperation dates back prior to written history–that cooperation is natural, and that the survival of humans was once directly tied to the idea of working together for common welfare. Examples of cooperative business and community structures can be found in Africa, Asia, Australia, Europe, North America, and South America. Today, around the globe, cooperatives have more than 800 million individual members and provide more than 100 million jobs.

While we will endeavor to provide a few examples, we hope over time to build our knowledge, and ultimately tell the untold histories of cooperation. Uncovering the undoubted wealth and experience of cooperators world-wide who have come before us will help us grow a stronger cooperative movement. It is only in truly seeking a more inclusive history of cooperation, and doing other social justice work, that we can create the foundation upon which we can truly realize one of the core principles of cooperative business–democracy.


“There was no work and no option. Our efforts to set up a cooperative and gain permission to restart the hotel were turned down, so in March 2003 we decided to occupy it,” Marcelo Ruarte in Taking Care of Business, a UK Guardian Article by Oliver Balch. (2005)

  • Over 12,670 cooperative societies with over 9.3 million members – approximately 23.5% of the population.
  • Following the economic crisis in 2001, workers took over factories to form ~200 worker-owned businesses.
  • Cooperatives are responsible for providing direct employment to over 233,000 individuals. (2008)

Mondragón Co-op, Basque Region of Spain (1943)

“Nothing differentiates people as much as their respective attitudes to the circumstances in which they live. Those who opt to make history and change the course of events themselves have an advantage over those who decide to wait passively for the results of the change.”
-José María Arizmendiarrieta

Backdrop:  Spanish Civil War, severe economic and social depression
A highly pragmatic and hard-working man, José Arizmendiarrieta was the driving force behind the Mondragón Co-op

    • 1943- Father Arizmendiarrieta set up the Polytechnic School (democratically administered, open to all youth)
    • 1956- Five young people from this school established the first MCC production initiative.
    • 1957- Construction of the first production plant: a two story concrete building.
    • 1974-5 – Economic crisis ”…there was an increase in net employment in all the associate cooperatives as a whole.”
    • Today- 103,730 jobs, over $43M in assets, 7th largest company in Spain

Emilia Romagna Region, Italy

  • 1920s -1945 – Co-ops taken over by the Fascists; they become ghosts of their former social and economic strength.
  • Economic ruin in Emilia Romagna at the end of the Second World War.
    Region’s co-op leaders died fighting in the partisan movement.
  • Amidst the rubble of bombed factories, closed shops and broken dreams a new generation of cooperative leaders arose to rebuild the cooperative sector in Emilia Romagna.
  • Now, co-ops comprise over 40%  of Emilia Romagna Gross Domestic Product
  • Two out of three citizens are members of a co-op, over 85% of the city’s social services are provided by social co-ops, and 70% of Bologna’s households have home ownership in Bologna.
  • Higher GNP (11th of 122 regions), as well as personal incomes, health, civic participation and support for the arts.
  • Per capita income is 50% higher than the national average; the unemployment rate is only 4%.

The Rochedale Pioneers, England (1843)

“…if they could not organize for better wages, at least they might organize as consumers for lower prices.”

The Industrial Revolution forced skilled workers into poverty.
In 1843 a number of workers were fired and then blacklisted by their factories after they had organized a strike for better wages and failed.
28 of these flannel weavers decided band together to open their own store selling food items they could not otherwise afford.

  • The Store opened December 21, 1844 with a very meager selection of butter, sugar, flour, oatmeal and a few candles.
  • Within three months, they expanded their selection to include tea and tobacco, and they were soon known for providing high quality, unadulterated goods.
  • Ten years later, the British co-operative movement had grown to nearly 1,000 co-ops.
  • The modern co-op movement and the Cooperative Principles trace their roots back to Rochedale.

More Global Cooperative Statistics:

Brazil– Cooperatives are responsible for 40% of the agricultural GDP and for 6% of total agribusiness exports. In 2006 Brazilian co-ops exported 7.5 million tons of agricultural products for a value of USD 2.83 billion to 137 countries.

Côte d’Ivoire– Cooperatives invested USD $26 million for building schools, maternal clinics and rural roads.

India– Over 239 million people are members of a cooperative.

Iran– Over 130,000 cooperative societies with 23 million members, approximately 33% of the population.

Japan– 1 out of every 3 families is a member of cooperative.

Kenya– 1 in 5 people is a member of a cooperative or 5.9 million and 20 million Kenyans directly or indirectly derive their livelihood from the cooperative movement.

Mauritius– Cooperative societies account for more than 60% of national production in the food crop sector.

Singapore– 50% of the population (1.6 million people) are members of a co-op.

Slovakia– the Cooperative Union represents more 700 cooperatives that employ nearly 75,000 individuals.

United States– 4 in 10 individuals are members of a co-op. The top 100 US cooperatives had combined revenues of USD $117 billion in 2003.

Uruguay– cooperatives produce 90% of the total milk production, 340% of honey and 30% of wheat. 60% of cooperative production is exported to over 40 other countries.

For more statistics, visit the International Co-operative Alliance.