Co-operative organizations thrive around the world and have a tremendously significant economic impact. According to the International Co-operative Alliance (ICA), the 300 largest co-ops in the world were responsible for the turnover of $2.2 trillion dollars in 2012. The U.S. alone is home to approximately 30,000 co-ops, which provide two million jobs in areas as diverse as utilities, agriculture, finance, and retail. Despite their diversity, all of these co-ops share a basic common structure: Members “buy in” to benefit from the goods and services provided by the organization.
Consumer co-ops are owned by their customers. Food co-ops are the most common type; some 1.3 million Americans are food co-op members. The 1970s saw a dramatic rise in the number of food co-ops, as consumers became more interested in “natural” foods and shared bulk purchases of staple goods with like-minded friends and neighbors. The focus on health and nutrition has continued: Today’s food co-ops aim to provide high-quality, sustainably-produced food, free of industrial additives and often sourced locally. Not all food co-ops have storefronts, but many do (the Pocatello Co-op, the Boise Co-op, and the Community Food Co-op in Bozeman, Montana are good regional examples). People join food co-ops to benefit from the group’s joint buying power – they can often get better prices on the foods they want when buying in larger quantities – and to support an alternative to conventional, profit-oriented corporate groceries.
As co-operative organizations, food co-ops adhere to the Seven Co-operative Principles originally set forth by the Rochdale Society of Equitable Pioneers in 1844. The Rochdale Society, wanting to provide an alternative food purchasing option to workers displaced by the machines of the Industrial Revolution, opened a store to sell foodstuffs at modest prices. The Principles were later adopted by the ICA and continue to provide the blueprint for the administration and operation of all co-operative organizations around the world:
- Voluntary and Open Membership
- Democratic Member Control
- Member Economic Participation
- Autonomy and Independence
- Education, Training and Information
- Co-operation among Co-operatives
- Concern for Community
Although food co-ops may look similar to any other grocery store, the Seven Co-operative Principles ensure that they are structured very differently and are operated with different values and goals in mind. For example, a conventional grocery store may be owned and managed by a relatively small group of people who benefit economically from the revenue generated by the store. The primary goal of the store is to make money. In a food co-op, on the other hand, all members have an equal say in the running of the store. Members supply the necessary capital for the operation of the co-op and decide what products should be provided and in what quantities. They decide if the co-op should expand, downsize, or create partnerships. In addition, money is viewed as a tool rather than as an end goal. High profits are not necessary or even desirable; all revenue goes back into the running of the co-op, and any surplus is allocated for specific purposes by the co-op members.
In addition to providing products for sale, co-ops have other serious obligations. For example, they must provide education to their members, employees, and communities. For a food co-op, this could mean scheduling a public talk or film screening about organic farming, food labeling, or the nature of co-operative organizations. Co-ops are also required to promote the health and sustainability of their local communities. Food co-ops do this by championing local food and selling sustainably-produced foods. Despite these obligations, however, all co-ops are autonomous and self-reliant. The final authority for all decisions rests with the membership.
Dollars are votes. When people buy from a food co-op, they are consciously furthering the development of a different kind of system – one based on cooperation, sustainability, social and economic justice, and nourishing food available to all. For those of us who would like to live in such a system, the choice is easy, and we enthusiastically support food co-ops whenever we can and encourage others to do the same. That support takes many worthwhile forms. Some people prefer doing all of their food shopping at a co-op. For others, buying an apple from the co-op once a week (or once a month) is sufficient. Others volunteer their time or skills to the co-op, or talk to their friends and families about the benefits of co-op membership. It all adds up, and whatever works for you and your situation is the perfect contribution.