Tell us how you started your journey as a cooperator.

The consumer cooperatives of Korea are unique in their history. They hold strengths in improving the distribution system, reducing costs via direct trade between consumers and producers, and stabilising consumer prices. It does not end here in iCOOP, however. It concentrates on the value and meaning of food products. It believes that eco-friendly farming is fundamental not only to human beings but also to the environment. This was, in fact, strengthened by the members’ demand for safer products with no harmful ingredients. Furthermore, consumer-members actively participate in informing their neighbours and communities about ethical consumerism and value-added products. I frequently witnessed and experienced their dedication in community gatherings and led me to wish ‘to be one of them.’ This was the start of my journey as a cooperator.

How has cooperative movement impacted your life?

I have to say that the coop movement is the most important part of my career. As you can see, I became Chairperson of iCOOP, the federation of 101 consumer coops. iCOOP has worked hard to provide eco-friendly, safe food, and now leaped into a healing industry with a firm belief that healthy food is the key to recovery and preservation of the planet. With much experience, iCOOP is determined to become an all-round life care cooperative. It is a very important moment for us as we are challenging to break the limit of consumer coops.

Cooperatives have had a huge impact on my personal life as well. The practice of self-determination and self-help sounds wonderful, but it is not easy for individuals to realize their desires in a large economic system. That is why cooperatives are necessary: to practice self-help. The principles of cooperatives do not simply exist for running economic organizations, but they have to be embodied in our everyday lives and in our culture of solidarity. Most importantly, the principle of cooperation has infiltrated our daily lives.

Around the world, we women still face challenges to be leaders in the cooperative movement. How did you overcome them and what advice do you have for young women who face barriers?

I would like to say, “Don’t be fooled by the time.” Time flows at regular intervals according to the revolution and rotation of the earth. But we feel time relatively. Think of the words ‘yet’ and ‘already.’ When we have a long way to go, when we have a goal that looks daunting, we tend to think that the time passes very slowly or that it takes too much time. On the other hand, when we complete a course, or finally achieve a tough goal, the hard work of the past seems to have passed rapidly at that moment. I personally had felt much frustration due to the relativity of time whenever I faced a rocky road. Therefore, I advise not to mind so much or be deceived by the psychological passage of time. Simply, follow your pace in taking a step toward the goal.

Also, I would like to add “Trust your members and your colleagues”. From my experience, a one-top leader in the cooperative movement doesn’t mean anything. In the process of resolving common needs together, the wisdom and cooperation of many people helps you to grow as well as the cooperatives. When we create an environment where collective leadership can be exercised and we work together within it, we will become stronger.

What does the cooperative identity mean to you?

As with many cooperative leaders, for me, the cooperative identity is like the North Star. Although cooperatives are established and run for a people-centered economy, they face more challenges within a highly competitive capitalist economy. Sometimes, we get lost, or derive results that spiral out from the spirit of the coops. Again, we must keep advancing on for the North Star in the dark night sky.

The cooperative identity is not a single great human invention, but rather a complex of human wisdom helping each other to overcome the difficulties in reality. That wisdom will keep us from getting lost even in the dark night, and when we get lost, it will help us find our way back.

How has the cooperative identity, and the principles and values it represents, strengthened iCOOP’s ability to serve its members and communities?

The beginning of iCOOP was six small coops that supplied eco-friendly agricultural produce and safe food. With increased member coops, iCOOP has responded to more diverse needs of members and resolved problems of the farming environment. During this process, consumer-members have strengthened their relationship with producers and even created organic food-producing clusters ‘Natural Dream Parks’ with the cooperation of consumers, producers, and employees. I believe this is the fruit of a long process of learning and building problem-solving capabilities in production, process, distribution and consumption based on the principles of cooperatives. Moreover, the Parks, which seek to secure the income of producers and provide healthier food to consumers, are located in the relatively underdeveloped areas of Gurye and Goesan, as opposed to Korea’s economic system centred on the metropolitan area, and has contributed greatly to the development of the regions.

In this way, I believe the development of iCOOP shows how the cooperative identity responds to common needs and how the principles of cooperatives contribute to the community. In particular, natural disasters and the pandemic demonstrate the power of cooperatives. For example, iCOOP secured a stable supply of necessities in the Pohang/Gyeongju earthquake from 2017 to 2018, prioritized the distribution of masks and lunch boxes for affected children in the pandemic, and provided supports for flood victims in Gurye, such as meals and bath service in the Park.

iCOOP is not a perfectly planned structure from the beginning, but constantly transforms and innovates according to the wishes of multi-stakeholders – consumers, producers, employees and communities – who want to create a better society. Today,  we want to address a wider community “the planet” and resolve the climate crisis through members’ “No Plastic” practice.

What are you most looking forward to at Congress this year? What do you hope will emerge from the discussions? How can attendees get the most from attending Congress?

The world suffered from the global financial crisis, and new anxiety over the future of mankind comes from the rapid development of IT technology that emerged in less than half a century and the COVID19 pandemic. Even when the economy suffered or faced new challenges, investor-owned companies have never questioned the form of the business itself. However, cooperatives have demonstrated their resilience in difficult times and are now starting to get attention. So, I propose cooperatives to have a firm belief in our identity. I hope the Congress will be a place full of faith and encouragement about our power of cooperation that has changed the world for over the last 200 years. I hope that it will be a time of rich inspiration from wonderful examples of coops overcoming difficult times.

The global cooperative movement is diverse, and the process of cooperative development also differs in institutions and socio-cultural conditions in each country.  However, rather than focusing on such differences, I hope that we can talk more about the success stories we can bring home together, and spread a pleasant imagination that can revive in each coop. I hope that the reunion of coops will present an opportunity for each of our seeds to germinate and grow trees that will form a big forest that carries our distinct identity.