Co-operative spirit pays dividends for the movement that's back in business

The latest shop to open in the heart of Holmfirth has an eclectic selection of goods on sale.

In one corner, there are baskets woven from Romanian willow. In another, there are children's rocket kits made from recycled paper. In between, there's everything from locally-produced wine to garden fertiliser made from seaweed.

The idea for the Fair Traders Co-operative was born last year when Tesco announced it wanted to make its mark on the West Yorkshire mill town. The supermarket giant proposed building a store a mile or so out of the centre, but a group of residents under the banner of Keep Holmfirth Special were determined to protect the local small businesses which they believed would suffer if the development went ahead.

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At first the plans were a little vague, but by the time Tesco withdrew its proposals last September, the group had a renewed sense of determination. They would, they said, open their own shop, stocking the kind of produce which would never make it onto the shelves of the average supermarket.

This was to be a community affair. Shares costing 20 each were launched and in one night, when the country was in the grips of deep recession, the group raised 10,000.

"An economic downturn sounds like a terrible time to start a new business, but actually the timing couldn't have been better for us," says Elisabeth Bounds, one of the five founders of the co-operative. "It made people stop and think about what they were buying. There's always been a perception that fair trade is massively more expensive than non-fair trade products, but actually that's not true.

"As people started looking more closely at what they were putting into their shopping baskets, they also began to pay much closer to attention to where items had come from.

"The original idea was to open a craft and gift shop, but when we started to look at the kind of products available we realised it could be so much more. By the time we were ready to open, we were stocking everything from food to birthday cards. It's now, we hope, a showcase for ethically sourced products from just down the road and across the world."

It took less than a year from the initial brainwave to the official ribbon cutting, but Elisabeth admits that it wasn't all plain sailing. Endless forms had to be filled out, premises had to be found and the nature of a co-operative meant there had to be consensus between all the interested parties before major decisions could be taken.

"We were lucky in that a lot of the people involved right from the start had first-hand experience of setting up and running a co-operative so we weren't completely starting from scratch," she says. "The paperwork is time-consuming and I can understand how it can be daunting, but there is help around and all the hard work has been absolutely worth it. I haven't heard one negative comment."

The Fair Traders Co-operative takes its philosophy from the movement which thrived in the mill towns of Yorkshire and Lancashire as the Industrial Revolution gathered pace in the 19th-century, and opening in Holmfirth had its advantages. The town had been home to one of the earliest co-operatives and with Holmfirth having nailed its colours to the fair trade mast a couple of years earlier, the idea seemed ripe for reinvention.

However, it is by no means unique. In fact in the last two years, the co-operative has enjoyed something of a resurgence.

Today, 11 million people (one in five of the population) are members of the UK's 4,800 co-operatives and the sector has an annual turnover of 28.9bn. In Yorkshire alone. the turnover of its 277 organisations is nearly 2bn.

"The credit crunch was tough for a lot of businesses, but what it also showed was how resilient co-operatives can be," says Ed Mayo, chief executive designate of Co-operatives UK . "Amid all the accusations being hurled about the culpability of banks and risks taken by the City, the co-operative emerged as a business model people could trust.

"It's not about making big profits for shareholders, at its heart its about creating value for customers. People often associate co-operatives with funerals and supermarkets, but there is much more to it than that."

One of Ed's ambitions when he joined the organisation last year was to roll out the co-operative model to failing pubs and football clubs where supporters have become disillusioned by the ownership of millionaire businessmen.

It's early days, but word is beginning to spread, and next month will see the launch of the first Co-operative Fortnight, which it is hoped will highlight the many success stories.

"Co-operatives are slightly harder to set up than an individual going into business

on their own," adds Ed. "But because the foundations are laid by people with the same aspirations and interests, they are also harder to kill off.

"What we need is confidence in what we are doing. It's no good being introverted. It's our job to make the case for co-operatives."

To find out more about Co-operatives Fortnight visit www.thereisanalternative.coop