Co-op Month? Co-op Lifetime!

  | Food For Thought, GM Report

Even though I’ve heard the mantra about October being Co-op Month for 35 years, and even though there is some absurdity around celebrating important concepts—or even entire cultures—for a month or a day, the act of acknowledging things that often get taken for granted or ignored can be productive. (We all know that, especially in the age of tweets, human beings now have the attention span of a flea, and this mechanism is one way to remind ourselves about things that are important and relevant.)

So. It’s Co-op Month, once again, and we have an opportunity to think about the values and benefits that we each receive from cooperatives. In our immediate business, we have many products in our store that are made by cooperatives, from the Organic Valley dairy co-op (which includes the fluid milk from Corse Farm in Whitingham—see the Producer of the Month in this issue); to Equal Exchange products, made by farmer co-ops and imported and distributed by a worker co-op; to La Riojana wines and olive oil, produced by Argentinian farmer co-ops and sold through consumer co-ops here in the U.S.

But why should you care?

Because of the underpinnings of cooperative principles and values that ensure that these products are returning more income, more social support, and more solidarity to more people at the other end of the supply chain. If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it dozens of times: your choices matter. When you purchase cooperatively produced goods, your dollar is ending up in more pockets than if you make other choices.

Because we are a co-op. And one of those same cooperative principles is cooperation among cooperatives. Why? In the words of the International Cooperative Alliance, “because it is the clearest expression of our common desire to create a better more sustainable and equitable economic future for all humanity.” This is about creating wealth for the many, as opposed to continuing the consolidation of wealth in the hands of a few, which is the capitalist result of the competitive marketplace. We are stronger together, whether as co-owners of the Brattleboro Food Co-op, or as members of a regional cooperative alliance like the Neighboring Food Co-op Association, or as members of a national cooperative such as National Co-op Grocers. We help to fuel the growth of small worker cooperative businesses such as Real Pickles, and larger worker cooperatives like Equal Exchange, which in turn support countless cooperative groups throughout the world producing coffee, nuts, fruit, chocolate, and more. These are very real, very important effects of a seemingly innocuous decision in your grocery cart.

Cooperatives hold higher status in the rest of the world. Co-op Month encourages us to recognize the breadth and depth of their impact, and to imagine how things might be different in our own country and immediate region. Over 12% of the world’s population participates in three million cooperatives, so they are not a marginal economic structure idea.

In recent years, we have seen a renaissance of consumer cooperatives, motivated by a need to create grocery stores in areas either woefully underserved by traditional supermarkets, or in places where there are few alternative markets that support local producers, engage with their communities in multiple meaningful ways, and pay decent wages. Though in today’s economy, the planning and capital required to successfully launch and weather all of the challenges presented to startup businesses is daunting, even in our own region we see several co-ops in towns that had none (Keene, NH, and Northampton, MA). In most cases, successful startups also invest in seasoned management to help weather all of the tribulations inherent in new businesses in a very competitive market.

We also note that employee cooperative ownership has been a possible transition plan sought by individual operators who want their businesses to continue serving their communities, as well as to continue to provide earnings to loyal employees. As so many business owners are entering retirement years, with the swell of baby boomers making its mark there too, this option of a worker co-op gets more and more consideration. But the cards are often stacked against co-ops, due to misunderstandings, skepticism, or mistrust. Right now, for instance, the House and Senate Small Business Committees are being asked to revise the Small Business Administration’s requirement for personal guarantees in the use of small business loans administered by this agency. So, for instance, in the current landscape, if a business owner were attempting to sell their business to their employees, the retiring owner would be asked to provide a full, unlimited personal guarantee for an SBA loan for the life of the loan. How is this fair to anyone involved? As the National Cooperative Business Association has explained to both the House and Senate Small Business Committees, other federal agencies, such as the U.S. Department of Agriculture, do not require personal guarantees in their very large portfolio of loans to cooperatives. The SBA has heard many alternatives to this requirement that would be feasible and would not discriminate against a cooperative small business solution.

This is another reason you need to care. Cooperatives offer a balanced, broad-based solution that, in some cases, offer the best alternative for the people most impacted by a business, whether it’s their consumer users or their workers. Again, think of the ways that your life has been positively impacted by co-ops, which may mean your insurance company, or your credit union, or your community market. Celebrate them and do what you can to ensure their long life. No business organized solely for the enrichment of its stockholders can provide the same support as a business owned and controlled by its consumers or workers. It just stands to reason.

See you in the aisles!

By Sabine Rhyne, General Manager