Celebrate Co-ops!

IYC-CubeOnlyCooperatives are a reminder to the international community that it is possible to pursue both economic viability and social responsibility.

— United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon

By Kristie Snyder,

GreenLeaf Editor

One benefit of GreenStar membership is that you can see the results of supporting the Co-op right in your own community — in the flourishing of local farms, the growing network of food justice initiatives in the area, the happy employees in the stores, and myriad other ways. But what about other co-ops in other towns? Or other countries? What's the effect when you add up all of that community-building, support for sustainability and social responsibility, and cooperation?

The answer is impressive. According to the National Cooperative Business Association (NCBA), the US is home to approximately 30,000 co-ops, generating $500 billion in total revenue, $25 billion in wages and benefits, and nearly 1 million jobs. Then there are the less measurable effects, like member benefits such as member refunds, discounts, and dividends, and the investments that co-ops make in their local communities. Around the world, according to the International Cooperative Association, nearly one billion people are cooperative owners, and nearly 100 million are employed by co-ops. The world's largest 300 cooperatives generated revenues of $1.6 trillion in 2011 — comparable to the GDP of Spain, the world's ninth largest economy. That's a lot of economic power.

To recognize the "contribution of cooperatives to socio-economic development, particularly their impact on poverty reduction, employment generation and social integration," the United Nations declared 2012 the International Year of the Cooperative, or IYC. The UN General Assembly has passed a resolution encouraging all member nations, the UN itself, and other stakeholders "to promote cooperatives and raise awareness of their contribution to social and economic development and promote the formation and growth of cooperatives," according to the IYC's website, http://social.un.org/coopsyear.

In honor and support of this effort, several Ithaca-area co-ops, including GreenStar, Alternatives Federal Credit Union, Buffalo Street Books, Handwork, and CoLab, have pooled their resources to launch www.ithacacooperatives.coop, highlighting the impact of cooperative business right here in Ithaca. During October, ads featuring the IYC logo and the tagline "Cooperatives Build a Better World Ithaca" could be seen on TCAT buses throughout the city.

What's so different or special about co-ops? The cooperative business model is based on values and focuses on fairness, transparency, and democracy. A cooperative is owned either by the people who use its goods and services or by its employees. These member-owners, not outside investors, have democratic control of their co-ops, and they elect their boards of directors from within the membership. Co-ops return surplus revenues to members proportionate to their use of the cooperative, rather than to shareholders based on their investment. All co-ops use the seven Cooperative Principles (found on page 5 of this month's GreenLeaf) to guide their decisions and operations.

According to the NCBA, co-ops range in size from small storefronts to large Fortune 500 companies. They come in a few different forms. Consumer cooperatives are owned by the people who buy the goods or use the services of the cooperative. Consumer co-ops include credit unions, child-care co-ops, electric and telecommunications co-ops, food co-ops, health care co-ops, and housing co-ops. This most common form of co-op is very visible in Ithaca, with GreenStar and our many local credit unions serving as examples.

Worker cooperatives are owned and governed by their employees. Some 300 worker co-ops throughout the US provide their employees with both jobs and ownership, allowing them to directly benefit from the financial success of the business. Examples include Rainbow Grocery, a natural foods supermarket in San Francisco, and Cooperative Home Care Associates, the nation's largest worker co-op, with more than 1,000 members providing home care in the New York metropolitan area.

Purchasing or share services cooperatives are owned by small, independent businesses, municipalities, or other organizations that band together to enhance their purchasing power. ACE, True Value, and Do it Best hardware stores are all purchasing co-ops, which collectively are owned by more than 13,000 independent hardware stores.

Producer cooperatives are owned by producers of farm commodities or crafts.Handwork, Ithaca's Cooperative Craft Store, a cooperative owned and operated by more than thirty local artists and craftspeople, is an example in Ithaca. Organic Valley is a nationwide dairy co-op specializing in organic dairy and meat products; it has diversified into fruit juices and other products.

Co-ops have evolved to serve nearly any imaginable need, across the world and here in Ithaca. Locally, one can purchase or procure natural foods, banking services, hardware, child care, housing, art, and books at a co-op. Though the Year of the Cooperative is winding down, co-ops will remain a growing force for economic justice here in Ithaca, and around the world. Celebrate the IYC by patronizing a local co-op!

Thanks to GreenStar's Membership Department for conducting much of the research that went into this article.

 
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