Founded more than 100 years ago to help the industrial working classes, the Co-operative movement has at times looked ill at ease with the modern commercial world. Ten years ago its biggest society struggled to fend off an aggressive takeover bid from the City entrepreneur Andrew Regan.
But the Co-op won that fight and this week it is celebrating a triple success that suggests its founding principles of self-help and equity may have a bright future in the 21st century.
First, Smile, the internet offshoot of the Co-operative Bank, saw off the big high street banks to win best current account provider at the Which? awards. Which? said that at a time of widespread public disapproval with the banks, 82 per cent of Smile customers were "very satisfied" with their treatment.
Then yesterday, the Co-operative Group - which runs everything from the bank to corner shops - announced that 500,000 people had joined its new dividend scheme. The revamped "divi" was linked directly to profits last year rather than being a fixed loyalty scheme. As a result the number of people taking part swelled to 1.4 million, who now receive a 6 per cent share in last year's bumper profits of £318m - some £19m. The payout will be made according to the number of points members have accrued by using the group's services.
The movement received another fillip yesterday when an independent study rated the Co-op as the most climate change-friendly chain on the high street. The accolade from the environmental research firm Trucost, for the BBC's Money Programme, vindicates the group's ethical approach.
In an analysis of 10 chains, the Co-op was found to release £324 worth of carbon and waste for every £1m of turnover. The worst performer was Somerfield with £1,194 per million. .
Despite a turbulent recent history, the Co-op is still a force on the high street, with 3,000 high street outlets and a workforce of 68,000. Its grocery chain of 1,713 stores is one of the largest in the country. Its travel business, the UK's largest independent travel agent, became the first major travel agency chain to offer carbon offsets with its flights. Co-operative Funeralcare is the largest funeral director and the Co-operative Pharmacy is the fourth largest chain of chemists. It also runs Co-operative Financial Services and the Shoefayre footwear shops.
The group's chief executive, Martin Beaumont, said: "At a time when communities are increasingly dominated by a handful of large and impersonal business, we are showing consumers that there is a better alternative, one which is ultimately owned and controlled by them."Reuse content