The history of the cooperative movement concerns the origins and history of cooperatives. Although cooperative arrangements, such as mutual insurance, and principles of cooperation existed long before, the cooperative movement began with the application of cooperative principles to business organization.
The cooperative movement began in Europe in the 19th century, primarily in Britain and France, although The Shore Porters Society claims to be one of the world's first cooperatives, being established in Aberdeen in 1498 (although it has since demutualized to become a private partnership). The industrial revolution and the increasing mechanization of the economy transformed society and threatened the livelihoods of many workers. The concurrent labor and social movements and the issues they attempted to address describe the climate at the time.
The first consumer cooperative may have been founded on March 14, 1761, in a barely-furnished cottage in Fenwick, East Ayrshire, when local weavers manhandled a sack of oatmeal into John Walker's whitewashed front room and began selling the contents at a discount, forming the Fenwick Weavers' Society.
In the decades that followed, several cooperatives or cooperative societies formed including Lennoxtown Friendly Victualling Society, founded in 1812.
By 1830, there were several hundred co-operatives. Some were initially successful, but most cooperatives founded in the early 19th century had failed by 1840. However, Lockhurst Lane Industrial Co-operative Society (founded in 1832 and now Heart of England Co-operative Society), and Galashiels and Hawick Co-operative Societies (1839 or earlier, now Lothian, Borders & Angus Co-operative Society) still trade today.
It was not until 1844 when the Rochdale Society of Equitable Pioneers established the ‘Rochdale Principles’ on which they ran their cooperative, that the basis for development and growth of the modern cooperative movement was established.
Robert Owen (1771–1858) is considered the father of the cooperative movement. A Welshman who made his fortune in the cotton trade, Owen believed in putting his workers in a good environment with access to education for themselves and their children. These ideas were put into effect successfully in the cotton mills of New Lanark, Scotland. It was here that the first co-operative store was opened. Spurred on by the success of this, he had the idea of forming "villages of co-operation" where workers would drag themselves out of poverty by growing their own food, making their own clothes and ultimately becoming self-governing. He tried to form such communities in Orbiston in Scotland and in New Harmony, Indiana in the United States of America, but both communities failed.
Although Owen inspired the co-operative movement, others – such as Dr William King (1786–1865) – took his ideas and made them more workable and practical. King believed in starting small, and realized that the working classes would need to set up co-operatives for themselves, so he saw his role as one of instruction. He founded a monthly periodical called The Co-operator, the first edition of which appeared on 1 May 1828. This gave a mixture of co-operative philosophy and practical advice about running a shop using cooperative principles. King advised people not to cut themselves off from society, but rather to form a society within a society, and to start with a shop because, "We must go to a shop every day to buy food and necessaries - why then should we not go to our own shop?" He proposed sensible rules, such as having a weekly account audit, having 3 trustees, and not having meetings in pubs (to avoid the temptation of drinking profits).
The Rochdale Society of Equitable Pioneers was a group of 28 weavers and other artisans in Rochdale, England, that was formed in 1844. As the mechanization of the Industrial Revolution was forcing more and more skilled workers into poverty, these tradesmen decided to band together to open their own store selling food items they could not otherwise afford. With lessons from prior failed attempts at co-operation in mind, they designed the now famous Rochdale Principles, and over a period of four months they struggled to pool together one pound sterling per person for a total of 28 pounds of capital. On December 21, 1844, they opened their store 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.
The Co-operative Group formed gradually over 140 years from the merger of many independent retail societies, and their wholesale societies and federations. In 1863, twenty years after the Rochdale Pioneers opened their co-operative, the North of England Co-operative Society was launched by 300 individual co-ops across Yorkshire and Lancashire. By 1872, it had become known as the Co-operative Wholesale Society (CWS). Through the 20th century, smaller societies merged with CWS, such as the Scottish Co-operative Wholesale Society (1973) and the South Suburban Co-operative Society (1984).
By the 1990s, CWS's share of the market had declined considerably and many came to doubt the viability of co-operative model. CWS sold its factories to Andrew Regan in 1994. Regan returned in 1997 with a £1.2 billion bid for CWS. There were allegations of "carpet-bagging" - new members who joined simply to make money from the sale - and more seriously fraud and commercial leaks. After a lengthy battle, Regan's bid was seen off and two senior CWS executives were dismissed and imprisoned for fraud. Regan was cleared of charges. The episode recharged CWS and its membership base. Tony Blair's Co-operative Commission, chaired by John Monks, made major recommendations for the co-operative movement, including the organisation and marketing of the retail societies. It was in this climate that, in 2000, CWS merged with the UK's second largest society, Co-operative Retail Services.
Its headquarter complex is situated on the north side of Manchester city centre adjacent to the Manchester Victoria railway station. The complex is made up of many different buildings with two notable tower blocks of New Century House and the solar panel-clad CIS tower.
Other independent societies are part owners of the Group. Representatives of the societies that part own the Group are elected to the Group's national board. The Group manages The Co-operative brand and the Co-operative Retail Trading Group (CRTG), which sources and promotes goods for food stores. There is a similar purchasing group (CTTG) for co-operative travel agents.
Co-operative communities are now widespread, with one of the largest and most successful examples being the Mondragón Cooperative Corporation in the Basque country of Spain. Co-operatives were also successful in Yugoslavia under Tito where Workers' Councils gained a significant role in management.
In the UK, co-operatives formed the Co-operative Party in the early 20th century to represent members of co-ops in Parliament. The Co-operative Party now has a permanent electoral pact with the Labour Party, and some Labour MPs are Co-operative Party members. UK co-operatives retain a significant market share in food retail, insurance, banking, funeral services, and the travel industry in many parts of the country.
Denmark has had a strong cooperative movement.