‘Promoting product quality: the Co-op and the Council of Industrial Design’ in Lawrence Black and Nicole Robertson (eds), Consumerism and the Co-operative movement in modern British history: Taking Stock (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2009). ISBN 978 07190 7684 8
This edited volume arose from the 2005 Taking Stock conference on ‘The Co-operative Movement in British History', held at the People's History Museum in Manchester, in May 2005. The event received support from the Economic History Society and the Society for the Study of Labour History and asked how the British Co-operative movement responded to changes in economic, social, cultural and political spheres during the twentieth century; as well as interrogating its impact on social movements, politics, business practice, and consumption over what has conventionally been perceived as a slow decline. The resulting book makes a substantial contribution during what appears to be a renaissance of interest in Co-operative history, and, in fact, a renaissance in Co-operative fortunes.
Whitworth’s chapter is concerned with the relatively unknown but prolonged engagement between the Council of Industrial Design and the Co-operative. It draws on a particularly rich set of accounts of site visits made by Council staff at the Co-op’s request during 1957, which are ‘revelatory of the conditions pertaining in the productive units of “Britain’s biggest business”, and disclose how far from an integrated, systematised model of production the CWS manufacturing operation really was’ (p.183). As such it usefully supplements the work by Woodham (1999) which has as its focus an ill-fated joint initiative to introduce more advanced furniture design to the Co-operative’s customers.
This new chapter is also imbued with concerns carried through from Whitworth’s ‘Cultures of Consumption’ work looking at the development of product standards as a consumer protection and engagement mechanism. The Co-op was of interest to the Council precisely because the wide ambit of its activities included production, wholesaling and retailing roles, giving it the potential to be the most useful possible ally for its own missionary agenda. The Co-op’s historic insistence on its role as a guardian of standards and champion for ordinary shoppers naturally gave added impetus to the relationship. Reference is made to the inadequacy of the Co-op’s market research capability; the poor correlation between manufacturing and retailing ends of its operations; and its limited capacity to promote well-designed goods even when these did exist. Notwithstanding any of these features, there continued to be renewals of investment by both sides in the proposition of a mutually enriching partnership throughout the period under scrutiny.