Recent research completed by PwC, revealed that New Zealand remains one of the most co-operative economies globally, currently generating 18% of GDP. 

The research findings were presented at Cooperative Business New Zealand Annual Leaders’ Forum this week held at Mitre10. Governors, senior leaders and educators alike met to discuss key challenges co-operatives are currently facing, providing an opportunity to collaborate on ways to move the business model, and New Zealand, forward. 

With a population of only five million, PwC shared that Aotearoa currently has 331 member-owned businesses (co-operatives, mutuals, friendly societies and credit unions). They employ over 50,000 staff and have over 1.5 million members. What the numbers didn’t report was how many of the 1.5 million members are SME’s and businesses in their own right, indicating how intrinsic these businesses are to the New Zealand psyche.

Hon Grant Robertson provided the opening address acknowledging the significant contribution co-operatives play within the New Zealand economy. 

The theme of the day being ‘Co-operatives, climate and capital’ addressed the critical need for these businesses to have access to capital to reinvest in their businesses, the need for innovation to remain competitive into the future, and for New Zealand businesses to focus on sustainability in their practices, with the emphasis being on measuring of ESG (environmental, social and governance) responsibility. 

A repeated message heard from senior leaders throughout the day was, ‘For New Zealand to keep its spot on the global stage as a small but thriving economy punching above its weight, the focus on sustainable choices across the entire business must be part of the businesses’ DNA’.

The discussions highlighted the global move of organisations seeking B-corp certification, where businesses look to balance purpose with profit to ensure they consider the impact their business decisions have on the wider community and environment.  Those co-operatives who have already sought to apply for registration spoke of how the co-operative model (given their fundamental principles) greatly supports achieving this outcome; open and voluntary membership; democratic member control; member economic participation; autonomy and independence, education and training; cooperation among cooperatives; and concern for community. 

Trends in consumer behaviour globally show that the attention to sustainable practices, from supply chain decisions to employment equality and governance diversity of thought, is becoming more critical during the decision-making process for potential consumers, shareholders and investors. 

In his keynote address Fraser Whinerary, COO, Fonterra noted, “It’s now about the how rather than simply the what of your product”.

The leaders present at the forum represented the wide range of industries utilising the co-operative model here in New Zealand; retail, financial services, horticulture, construction, and agriculture. They heard from thought leaders including; Dr Ganesh Nana, Chair of the New Zealand Productivity Commission; Professor Nicola Shadbolt, Chair of Plant and Food and Commissioner on the Climate Change Council; Becky Lloyd, CEO Toitu; Annabell Chartres, Partner Sustainability and Climate Change, PwC, Rob Hewett, Chair of Silver Fern Farms Co-operatives and Farmlands, David Cunningham, CEO The Co-operative Bank. 

The co-operative business model aligns with what is required for a sustainable future. Using the seven principles, co-operatives work to build lifelong, intergenerational success which stays within the community and continues to grow decade on decade. The more sustainable they are, the more long-term direct benefits their 1.5 million members will reap, ultimately contributing significantly to the bettering of New Zealand as a whole. 

Roz Henry, CEO of Cooperative Business NZ said, “Covid opened the door to demonstrate the importance of New Zealand’s co-operatives to our economy. Our government, educators and business community need to collaborate to build a better understanding of the model and how it can be leveraged to support New Zealand’s unique value proposition.”

It is a hefty task sitting on co-operatives shoulders. But as 18% of the country’s GDP, it’s something they are ready to take on.