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Rochdale Pioneer Museum

From Rochdale to Rio in the steps of Robert Owen

Graphics: “Toad Lane, Rochdale, 1844.” Open with shot of wet cobbles. Pan up to 19th Century storefront. Through mired windows, bearded men in formal dress are in heated debate. Voiceover: “The industrial revolution has swept across the rolling hills of Lancashire, an invading army of new technologies and expanding markets.”

Fade to belching chimneys. Steam train crosses viaduct. Voiceover: “The smoke stacks and steam engines tell only half the story.” Fade to dimly lit factory space. The workers are children, their faces smudged with grease and grime. Voiceover: “In the newly constructed mill buildings, boys and girls as young as eight or nine worked up to 12 hours a day to make England’s Northwest a global powerhouse for industries such as cotton.”

Cut again to Storefront. The men’s debate continues. Voiceover: “Their plight does not go unnoticed.” Cut to interior shot. Voiceover: “In Rochdale, a group of pioneers are discussing the inadequate factory law of 1819, the union movement collapse of 1834, and the example set by Robert Owen, the first of the Co-operators...”


Sadly, in spite of some heavy networking in sun- drenched Cannes, ‘Co-op, the Movie’ has yet to be picked up by Spielberg, Tarentino or Ritchie. The story of the Rochdale Pioneers, who founded the first Co-operative Society and who established a model that would be copied all over the world will not, as yet, hit the silver screen.

But the story is known far and wide. In the nineteenth century, visitors came from France, Germany, Italy, Spain and even Japan to find out how co-operation worked. Sister societies were established in America. The Co-operative Society flourished and became a major brand that would find its way onto wine bottles in France, electricity providers in the States and even a fleet of taxis in Mexico.

England’s Northwest can lay claim to many exports. It was here that the first passenger railway ran and that the first test tube baby was born; it was here that we first split the atom and programmed a computer. Our industrial revolution also brought with it some less than enviable firsts, such as sweatshop labour and industrial pollution.

Robert Owen

But courtesy of the Rochdale Pioneers we developed the first, embryonic form of corporate social responsibility. It would take another 150 years before world leaders, meeting in Rio at the first Earth Summit, would formally use the term ‘sustainable development’ to describe development that integrates social, environmental and economic progress but in 19th Century England we saw its first stirrings. Local was considered to be a vital scale. Education and public health were of the utmost importance. Co-operative movement guru and, for a time, Manchester-based reformer Robert Owen championed what would one day be termed Corporate Social Responsibility and environmental concern.

The stakeholder approach, assessing the needs and aspirations of staff, their families, shareholders, suppliers, customers and future generations was first set down by Robert Owen as the right way to run a business. Today, in the early 21st Century, the Co-operative Bank wins international awards for its state-of-the-art and often emulated, stakeholder Partnership Reports.

Mervyn Pedelty is the present day Chief Executive of the Co-operative Bank, and the Chair of Sustainability Northwest, Europe’s first regional sustainable development organisation. “It is possible to trace a line from Rochdale to Rio,” says Pedelty. “Although industrialisation brought many social benefits to our region, mistakes were made. We could have done more to hold our communities together and invested in a better quality of life.

We took too much from the environment and put little back. After centuries of reform and the development of some strong, innovative partnerships, we are starting to see the first shoots of a sustainable society.

We took too much from the environment and put little back. After centuries of reform and the development of some strong, innovative partnerships, we are starting to see the first shoots of a sustainable society. Today we have social businesses that are flourishing, we are putting some major investments into renewable energy and our Regional Assembly and Regional Development Agency are making sustainable development a central aim in regional affairs.”

Pedelty’s predecessor at the Co-operative Bank and a declared devotee of Robert Owen was Lord Thomas of Macclesfield. As the ubiquitous and energised ‘Terry’ Thomas, he was the first chair of the Northwest Partnership, the cross-sectoral partnership that would one day become the Northwest Regional Assembly. He also chaired the Northwest Business Leadership Team, the Northwest Development Agency, the National Centre for Business and Sustainability and established Sustainability Northwest.

There was nothing soft in this, it was hard, business thinking.

“Robert Owen was never a co-operator, he was a capitalist, pure and simple,” says Lord Thomas, controversially. ”Read his balance sheets and you’ll see. He did it because he saw it as being best for his business. He wanted skilled and committed operators. In New Lanark [Southern Scotland] he replanted the whole area with new trees. Developed the waterways for power but also so that everyone could benefit from it. Birds and habitats were attracted to the area. Again it was for the purpose of creating a quiet and relaxed atmosphere in which people would want to work. There was nothing soft in this, it was hard, business thinking.”

Johannesburg 2002

That hard business thinking, reinvented for the late 20th Century, saw England’s Northwest launch a business-led sustainable development think-tank, Sustainability Northwest, a number of sustainable development strategies and programmes in the mid-90s, and a sustainability framework that today is overseen by the Northwest Regional Assembly. Steve Machin, the Assembly’s Chief Executive, powerfully underlines the importance of sustainability for the region, and sees the successor to Rio - Johannesburg 2002 - as being a unique opportunity.

“At a global level, sustainable development is becoming a major driving force, albeit one that is giving developed and developing nations alike some significant challenges and tough new routes to negotiate.” Says Machin.

“What the Johannesburg Summit will make very clear is that concerted, united action at a global level to address our shared problems will lead to every region, every town or city and every company having to wake up and realise that business as usual is not an option.

“At a national level sustainability is increasingly being seen as a goal across government, it is not the preserve of any one policy unit or department. At the regional level - our level - sustainable development has become a guiding principle for all of the public, private and voluntary sectors that are coming together to make the most of the increasingly devolved nature of development and governance in the UK.”

For Steve Machin, his colleagues, and the Assembly’s partners, the practical application of sustainability will include facing up to challenges that include transport improvements, assisting deprived communities and renewable energy.

But Steve Machin’s words undoubtedly prove a point made by Nitin Desai, the Secretary general of the Earth Summit. Desai claims that sustainable development “has entered the basic framework of our thinking.” According to Desai, the challenge now is “to give it practical expression.” In preparing for the Summit in Johannesburg, he is calling for a “very deep change at every level.”

Deep changes do need to be made. Thinking needs to be done but, vitally, action needs to be taken. Key themes for Johannesburg include water, climate change, sustainability in business and environmental justice - all of which will strike a chord here in England’s Northwest.

And another theme being addressed in Johannesburg is child poverty and the fact that
1.2 billion people are living on less than one US dollar a day. This kind of injustice was a driving force behind our Rochdale Pioneers, who stood shocked at the spectacle of young children working for 12 hours in a dirty, unhealthy factory.

They decided to do something about it and, in 2002, so can we.

Main image: The Rochdale Pioneers Museum

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