Work Together (Archive)

Industrial and service cooperatives: essential allies to achieve the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals

1 July 2016

Tomorrow is the International Day of Cooperatives. To celebrate it, the international cooperative movement is showing how those enterprises promote the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). ‘Co-operatives: the power to act for a sustainable future’ is the slogan of the campaign that emphasizes our contribution to the goals. Industrial and service cooperatives – be they worker cooperatives, social cooperatives or self-employed producers’ cooperatives – are crucial allies in the effort to achieve these goals.

“As democratically controlled enterprises owned and managed by their members (workers, users, self-employed producers and other stakeholders), our cooperatives promote equal distribution of wealth, stable jobs, equitable access to goods and services and gender equality. Industrial and service cooperatives are locally rooted, and concern for local communities”, declares Manuel Mariscal, President of CICOPA.

Last September, the world leaders -together at the United Nation General Assembly- committed to the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, outlining an ambitious vision for a better world. They agreed on seventeen Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to wipe out poverty, fight inequality and injustice and tackle climate change over the next fifteen years. Myriads of examples demonstrate the strength of worker, social and producer cooperatives in accomplishing the goals of the 2030 Agenda. The cooperative model has sustainable development at its core, being based on ethical values and principles.

Worker cooperatives are one of the pillars of the cooperative movement, endorsed by the Blueprint for a Co-operative Decade. As shown in the Special Issue of CICOPA’s magazine Work Together, dedicated to the Sustainable Development Goals, worker cooperatives in particular can help “the poor and the vulnerable have equal rights to economic resources, as well as access to basic services, ownership and control over land and other forms of property…”, as stated in the first sustainable development goal.

Out of Poverty

CICOPA’s studies indicate that this model is specifically adapted to lift people out of poverty, helping among other things the transition from the informal to the formal economy. Part of cooperative surplus is always dedicated to provide its members with social tools such as training, education, housing, and financial services, as well as care services for their own families.

One of many beautiful examples is the cooperative Le Gafreh (Group of Women Action for the Economic Growth of Houet), in Bobo Dioulasso, Burkina Faso. Since its creation in 1995, this cooperative has helped guarantee the living conditions of women in the region. Through a plastic bag recycling project, it guarantees the financial autonomy of 80 women and their families. They have created a Craft Center, and -at the same time- assisted women with literacy education – 1,170 since its foundation.

This cooperative is not only helping people out of poverty. It demonstrates – like many other worker cooperatives–, practical ways to achieve other UN sustainable development goals: to ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns, clean water and sanitation (plastic bags are usually abandoned in the streets, and sewers get blocked when rain falls), and women’s participation and equal opportunities in leadership at all levels of decision-making.

In this regard, in countries where some level of research exists on gender and cooperatives, the numbers indicate that cooperatives are among the best places for creating gender equality. Surveys show that women constitute 61% of the workforce of Italian cooperatives, and that 23.6% of them hold top level positions (26% including positions of responsibility in the management and control of the cooperative), compared to 16% in other companies. Gender studies carried out by the Spanish Worker Cooperatives Confederation COCETA show that almost 50% of the workers are women and that the quantity of women in high positions reaches 39%, while in other types of enterprises in Spain, this number barely attains 6%.


One of the main goals of the 2030 Agenda is to ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages. In the midst of outsourcing services from the public sector, and private competition, cooperatives -as member-based organizations- put health and well-being ahead of profits. They play a crucial role in care for the individual, prevention of illness, and social wellbeing of members and staff. They play a key role with vulnerable populations, including disabled people, seniors, and the mentally ill, and adopt an all-inclusive membership policy. One of many examples of this is one of the health cooperatives in Japan. For example, the Matsudo Local Welfare Business Place “Ajisai”, affiliated to the Japanese Worker Cooperative Union (JWCU). Among other things, the center runs a job training program for people with disabilities and also helps them to live independently through a combination of medical, daily life, self-support training, and employment transfer support.


There are plenty of examples in other sustainable goals as well, like goal number nine on the UN list: to “build resilient infrastructures, promote sustainable industrialization and foster innovation”. Worker, social and producers’ cooperatives promote sustainable employment, economic growth and industrialization. They promote the long-term dimension of the enterprise. And even though some of them are going through difficult times, the general trend reported by studies shows that these cooperatives are displaying resilience to crisis situations.

Countries like Argentina have numerous examples of worker cooperatives created by employees taking over their enterprises and safeguarding their jobs, after bankruptcies. This is the case of the newspaper Tiempo Argentino transformed by 125 workers in the cooperative Por Más Tiempo to widely and freely inform society under the slogan “Dueños de nuestras palabras” (“Owners of our words”, in Spanish). Another example is the textile manufacturer Creciendo Juntas, a cooperative created by 17 women, former workers from Textiles Zuco whose boss, back in 2011, had left without giving them their bonuses, holiday pay, or fortnightly wages. Now they have stable jobs and the factory manufactures some 3,700 shirts per month.

Furthermore, in the Basque Country (Spain), there is one of the largest examples of sustainable industrialization and innovation. The Mondragon Corporation, a group of more than 100 worker cooperatives, that give employment to 74,117 people, has its beginnings in 1943 in Mondragon, a poor town which then had a population of 7,000 people that had not yet recovered from the Spanish Civil War. Today the Basque Country (where the Mondragon Corporation represents a big part of its economy -3% of the regional GDP-, being the first entrepreneurial group) is the region of Spain with less unemployment (12% compared to 25% in the rest of the country). Oñati, the town with less unemployment of Spain (8,5%), manages to have such low unemployment in great part thanks to the cooperatives, which represents more than 50% of the enterprises in town.

Climate Change

Cooperatives are also helping to fight climate change, in many ways. As the Special Dossier of the Work Together issue shows, there are several valuable examples in this sector, such as, the worker cooperatives Coenergía, Kunlabora, Hunab Ku and Kutral in Chile, dedicated to the consultation, elaboration and creation of projects in the sectors of renewable energy engineering and energetic efficiency. These cooperatives have, among others, jointly created a design of a solar power photovoltaic plant, installed thermic solar panels in living spaces and buildings, written reports on energetic efficiency in industry, and developed projects of biogas production from organic matter. They help fight global warming and unemployment, like Earthworker, a community-led initiative that provides sustainable, wealth-creating jobs which empower local communities and provide clean energy solutions. They are setting up an Australia-wide network of community owned cooperatives.

The list of examples never ends. As enterprises based on the values of self-help, self-responsibility, democracy, equality, equity and solidarity, worker, social and producers’ cooperatives, providing employment to an estimated 16 million people, have been working to achieve those goals for many years.