The more I watch this economic situation, the clearer it becomes that nobody really has any idea of what is happening or what to do about it. Sure, we are all clinging to our ideological habits as we seek solutions (co-ops, for example) but really all bets are off. Consumer spending went up in January. Maybe the worst is behind us. I doubt it, but I could be wrong.
In the absence of any clue about what is really happening, I’m going to offer a few warm and fuzzy tidbits, where people are doing something good and actually getting the word out there.
The Co-opearative Bank is one of the UK’s largest financial institutions, and about to get much larger as it merges with the Britannia Building Society to create a 70 billion pound gorilla with combined annual profits expected to be in the quarter-billion pound range. It isn’t a cooperative itself. Rather, it is a subsidiary of The Co-operative Group, which is a multipurpose consumer-owned cooperative behemoth that includes most food co-ops in the UK, as well as huge operations in farming (its farmer-members are collectively the 2nd largest-landowner in Britain), pharmacy, funeral services, legal services, and travel. The also have dabbled in clothing, real estate, and a network of 25 auto dealers (which would ordinarily be a pretty big enterprise to lump down at the bottom of the “other businesses” page, don’t you think?)
The Co-operative Bank has quite a few “adverts” posted online. They range from intense to surreal to offensively cute, and several are posted here. Here’s one about their investment policies and another about the environment and a whimsical little film on their animal testing policy. And they also have one that is just a general appeal to principles, encouraging people to “stand up.” They don’t mess around with communicating their values, and it seems to be working. They’ve ranked at the top of British banks in terms of customer satisfaction, while former mutual banks like Northern Rock have gone down in flames.
These ads are totally different than anything I’ve ever seen on this side of the pond. The closest exception, in terms of really confronting the difference between an ethical and an amoral economy, is the mysterious Bankerspank ads, which are spoofs of the Mac/PC spots. It turns out that nobody knows who made them, believe it or not. My librarian friend found an interview with the top-secret crew (in American Banker 9/5/2007) and it turns out that they covered their electronic tracks in ways that criminals might be expected to do. Very mysterious.
Canada is a little better: Larissa Walkiw at Young & Free Alberta made a cute little film, but it isn’t a broadcast ad. As far as I can find, it is only VanCity (anglophone Canada’s largest credit union, with C$14 billion in assets and nearly 400,000 members) that has one that at least makes an appeal to radical values. I vaguely remember something juicy out of Utah a couple of years ago, but can’t find it online.
And speaking of folks who are prone to building alternatives and getting the word out, the Basques have been at it again. Regular readers will know that I’m prone to gushing about Mondragon, an 100,000-worker cooperative system that is one of Spain’s largest enterprises. I also am a bit guarded about them, as they have been moving in less cooperative directions in recent decades; most concerning, they have started non-cooperative subsidiaries overseas. But they are only part of the picture. The Basque country is also home to another co-op system called Elker-Lan, which includes about 200 co-ops and usually creates 40 or so new co-ops per year.
Basque cooperation made it into the news last month. The Guardian reports that there seem to be some legs under a plan to create a new “Silicon Valley” for cooperatives and social enterprises. It is at least partly motivated by the desire to launch a new generation of cooperatives that return to the roots from which Mondragon has strayed. The article ends with the observation that word origin has something to teach us about how business should run: “Companies comes from the Latin to mean ‘share the bread’.”
I love that. Company, companero, companion, it’s all about sharing the bread.