What's better than pumpkin spice lattes? A whole month devoted to exploring, joining, and celebrating cooperatives, that's what.
In a world where we're surrounded on all sides by big business, and large corporations control huge swaths of industries and sectors, it can be empowering to join a cooperative, and to be a part of an alternative business model with people, not simply profits, at its heart. Cooperatives, or co-ops, are member-owned businesses that exist to serve the needs of those members, which can take a variety of different forms, ranging from the well-known food co-ops that sell natural and bulk foods, to housing co-ops, car co-ops, utility and farm co-ops, and more. And October is National Cooperative Month, so it's a great time to get involved with one near you.
This cooperative model, which was used successfully throughout recent history and up to the present, and which is a more democratic and equitable solution to providing goods and services, is also a part of the economic solution in our current times, and worker-ownership and member-ownership can provide a wealth of local benefits. Co-ops are businesses which exist to serve their members, not to increase the share value for investors, which is actually a pretty radical difference from 'business as usual.'
"Co-operatives are based on the values of self-help, self-responsibility, democracy, equality, equity and solidarity. In the tradition of their founders, co-operative members believe in the ethical values of honesty, openness, social responsibility and caring for others."
Co-ops all adhere to seven basic principles, which are: Voluntary and Open Membership, Democratic Member Control, Member Economic Participation, Autonomy and Independence, Education, Training and Information, Cooperation among Cooperatives, and Concern for Community. How they put those principles into action can vary quite a bit by the individual co-op, and their missions and governance may vary as well, but co-operatives are by all, by nature, fully independent and with open membership, which also gives every member a vote on major policies or decisions. No back-room deals or other mysterious corporate acquisitions here.
There are tens of thousands of cooperative businesses in America, 40,000 to be more precise, which serve an estimated 120 million people (one out of three US citizens is a co-op member), and which provide more than 2.1 million jobs and $74 billion in annual wages. There are retail co-ops such as natural foods co-ops, and there are retailer cooperatives, such as Ace Hardware, and there are worker-owned bike co-ops and producer co-ops like Organic Valley and marketing co-ops like Sunkist. There are credit unions and electrical cooperatives. They're almost everywhere, if you know how to look.
But for those of you who don't know what a co-op is, or how it's different from any other small to medium-sized business, here's a very quick animated primer:
Need some help finding a co-op near you? The easiest place to start is with an internet search for your city and the word cooperative or co-op. You can also search the National Co-operative Grocers map of food co-ops or the one at Cooperative Grocer, the National Cooperative Business Association membership is here, Wikipedia has a large list of cooperative enterprises, and the International Co-operative Alliance has listings as well.
This year, the National Cooperative Business Association (NCBA) also celebrates 100 years of cooperation, and will be screening a documentary on the co-op model, produced by the Visionaries PBS series, which will highlight seven unique co-op stories, both in the US and abroad.
Find out more at NCBA.