For many businesses, profit is the bottom line. Resources are extracted from the earth and profit is funneled into the hands of a few. We can easily see the impact this has on the well being of our environment, our economy and our communities. The climate is changing, our water, air and land are becoming more polluted, jobs are outsourced and the gap between rich and poor is growing ever wider. Oxfam recently released a report titled “Wealth: Having It All and Wanting More”, which found:
… as of 2014, the 80 richest individuals in the world are wealthier than the bottom 50 percent of the world’s population. This bears repeating: The 80 wealthiest people, a group that could fit on a bus, control more wealth than 3.5 billion people. The wealthy are not only accumulating more wealth, but they are getting it faster. Between 2009 and 2014, Oxfam reports, the wealth of those 80 richest people in the world doubled. This, while the rest of the world was mired in the Great Recession, with rampant unemployment and people’s life savings wiped out. If current trends continue, Oxfam notes, by 2016 the richest 1 percent of the world’s population will control more wealth than the bottom 99 percent.1
The economy as it exists currently is unstable and unsustainable, we need a solution and cooperatives can be a big part of that solution. There are many ways to cooperate, and many kinds of coops. With credit unions, utilities and healthcare co-ops, to name just a few, over 130 million people in America are members of some sort of consumer cooperative organization… many without even knowing it!
Cooperatives are business organizations owned and operated by a group of individuals for their mutual benefit. Co-ops fulfill needs, obtain products and services, produce products and services, and/ or secure employment. Co-ops are people working together for better food, stronger communities, a more egalitarian economy and a healthier world.
Food co-ops started in the 1800s in England by weavers who had been forced into servile labor under a new industrial system. These people wanted to be in control of the mechanism by which they were fed, so that they could be self-reliant and not in need of charity. Today, food co-ops stay true to this original ideal, offering open membership and providing locally produced, fresh, quality foods that are less processed and healthier for the individual as well as the planet.
In the U.S., following the stock market crash of 1929, people hit with hard times in the Midwest gathered together and decided to take matters into their own hands. Their solution was a system of cooperation instead of competition. They started democratically owned, collectively run, independent businesses. They found a way out of the depression through cooperation.
By 1938 there were 15 regional warehouses supplying hundreds of co-op grocery stores. Farmers were then able to obtain a fair price for their labor. Cooperatives began to reach into other sectors like manufacturing and even open up department stores. There was an exponential increase in co-ops as employees deposited money in cooperative banks (credit unions), which in turn invested in other cooperative businesses. Cooperatives proved successful at building a better society.
World War II altered the American economy, and agriculture, drastically. Many of the depression era co-ops were forgotten due to the focus on supporting the war effort. As farmers left the fields to work in the factories, farms grew larger in size and fewer in number. Chemical companies, with backing from the federal government, pushed growers to use inadequately tested pesticides, herbicides and chemical fertilizers to increase yields.
In the 1950s corporate retailers launched the biggest advertising campaign in the history of civilization, encouraging people to be consumers in a mass market instead of citizens in a community. During the anticommunist era of the red scare, co-ops were unjustly attacked by big business as un-American. Consumer and military spending powered the U.S. economy, but in rural areas and inner cities people were suffering. By the end of the 1950s, 55 million Americans were poor, and half of all African Americans lived in poverty.2
In the 1960s and 70s growing economic inequality and segregation led to a resurgence of food co-ops. There was a demand for food that wasn’t tainted with pesticides and herbicides, giving birth to the organic movement. Durango Natural Foods cooperative was founded in 1974, as part of this movement. To the founders of the modern co-op movement, cooperation was more than “getting along”; it was interaction for a purpose. Competition is about getting ahead of others, but cooperation emphasizes getting ahead
with others on behalf of the common good.
“A successful co-op is proof that a community can care for itself by developing a self-sustaining business to provide the goods and services it needs. Co-op success means that an essential part of the local economy reinvests much of its wealth back in to the community. It is increasingly important for members to understand that the crucial difference between co-ops and other stores does not lie in the product line, pricing or management style, but the very purpose of the business itself. Coops exist to provide service to their members. Co-ops are a way for communities to fulfill their aspirations to become economically healthier and more equitable.” 3
Co-ops inherently serve and benefit the communities where they are located. Co-ops recycle 74% of food waste and 81% of plastics, compared to 36% and 29%, respectively, by conventional grocers. A recent study, Healthy Foods Healthy Communities: The Social and Economic Impact of Food Co-ops, found that for every dollar spent at a food co-op, $0.38 is reinvested in the local economy compared to $0.24 at conventional grocers. Furthermore, while conventional grocers work with an average of 65 local farmers and food producers, food co-ops work with an average of 157.
Food co-ops purchase from local farmers who, in turn, buy supplies from local sources, hire local technicians to repair equipment, and purchase goods and services from local retailers. To some extent, conventional grocers do too, but the gap is still significant. For every $1,000 a shopper spends at their local food co-op, $1,604 in economic activity is generated in their local economy—$239 more than if
they had spent that same $1,000 at a conventional grocer.
Cooperative grocers are owned and governed by member shoppers who invest in the business financially and elect a board of directors to guide their vision for the co-op. The board hires a general manager who is
responsible for staff, the financial success of the co-op, and operating the store in accordance with the vision and principles of the cooperative. If the co-op is profitable, a patronage refund gives the members cash back depending on how much they spend at the co-op.
Today, over 80% of U.S. food sales are controlled by a small handful of major corporations. Cooperative food sales in the U.S. make up only one half of 1%. Durango Natural Foods Co-op recognizes the interconnectedness between the health of individuals, our community, our land and our world. As a business, we strive to make environmentally sound, economically viable, and socially just choices so that we meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.
2 Adapted from the film Food for Change
3 Elizabeth Archerd, Wedge Community Co-op, Minneapolis, MN