1859 First Australian consumer cooperative registered

THE ANU Food Co-op in Canberra opened in 1976

There are various kinds of cooperatives including agricultural cooperatives, building societies, credit unions, and commercial entities like pubs or general stores that have been purchased and run by their staff. Australia’s first consumer cooperative was the Brisbane Co-operative Society, founded in 1859. The Adelaide Cooperative Society, a consumer cooperative, opened for business in 1868 and successfully traded for almost a hundred years.

The International Cooperative Alliance defines a cooperative as:

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.

Cooperatives raise capital by issuing shares and are managed by a board of directors. Shares can only be held by active members of the cooperative and members have a say in how the business is run, with one vote per member rather than one vote per share as is the case with companies.

Although there were cooperative enterprises in Britain as early as the 18th century, the modern cooperative movement traces its history back to a group of workers in the Lancashire, UK, cotton mills who, in 1844, banded together to access basic foodstuffs at a lower price. Calling themselves the Rochdale Equitable Pioneers Society, they initially sold only flour, oatmeal, sugar and butter. The underlying principle was that the customers would share in the profits and have a say in the running of the business.

While never as significant in Australia as it was in Britain, the cooperative movement did make the transition to this country. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, cooperatives were particularly important in rural and coal-mining areas of Australia. There is still a Rochdale-style consumer cooperative in the Barossa Valley as well as one in Denmark, Western Australia and another in Junee, New South Wales.

There was opposition. In 1868, the Tasmanian Times saw the cooperative as an upstart challenge to what it deemed “legitimate traders” and the writer did not see a promising future for the movement:

The only question is whether the co-operative principle, as applied to trade dealings, is likely to prove permanently successful? The answer must be in the negative, for that principle is opposed to one of the fundamental requirements of the highest civilisation – the minute division of labor. It is only in barbarous communities that a man can afford to do everything for himself…

Despite this, the movement gained favour. Many of the early cooperatives were formed by farmers to cut out the middleman and sell directly to the public. Dairy cooperatives sprang up in the 1880s and ’90s, with the first, the South Coast and West Camden Co-operative Ltd formed in 1881. The range of goods the cooperatives offered was generally limited and depended on the produce available locally.  The Hunter River Farmers and Consumers Co-operative Company held its first sale in October 1885, with the results reported as follows:

Eggs, 8d to 9d per dozen; butter 9d to 9½d per lb: fowls, 3s 7d per pair; turnips, 2s 1d per bag; maize, 3s 5 ½d to 3s 6d per bushel; imphee, 2d per lb; cabbages, 1s per dozen; lucerne hay, 76s; oaten hay 40s.

(Translation: d = pence (approximately one cent), s = shillings (10 cents) and lb = pound weight (.45 kilograms). Imphee is a form of sorghum.)

Interest in cooperatives waxed and waned over the decades. In 1944, the Co-operative Federation of Australia was formed at a conference of delegates representing the consumer cooperative movement in all States. The Federation aimed to bring the benefits of the movement to the attention of the Federal Government. Despite this, cooperatives continued to be subject to varying state legislation which limited their opportunities for expansion. As a result, from the 1960s, many were demutualised and corporatised.

Running a consumer cooperative has its difficulties as is noted in a submission to a Senate enquiry in 2015. While the principle is to buy goods in bulk, passing savings on to members, manufacturers have, at times, been unwilling to supply these enterprises which compete with major supermarkets. And if shareholders want to withdraw their capital it can lead to collapse, as happened with the Newcastle and Suburban Co-operative in 1979.

Today, however, the cooperative movement is gaining impetus with farmers and consumers. Many food co-ops specialise in whole foods. The Blue Mountains Food Co-op, founded in 1981, is a non-profit, volunteer-run venture offering a wide range of groceries, focusing on organic and sustainably sourced foods sold, where possible, in bulk. The Canberra Food Co-op, associated with the Australian National University, has been operating since 1976. The Melbourne University Food Co-Op was also founded in the 1970s, with this article attributing much of its ethos to the political and social climate of that era.

With the cost of living a key issue in the 2020s, the consumer co-operative may be one way of addressing the power of the big supermarkets. However, a co-op requires a sense of community and commitment from its members. And how many of us are prepared to make that investment?

This website uses cookies but doesn't share them.