By Alexis Alexander, GreenStar Membership Manager

When I think about the Seven Cooperative Principles, there’s one that I tend to forget: Principle #4, Autonomy and Independence. Maybe that’s because it’s so fundamental to the notion of cooperatives. Then again, it’s also the one I struggle to explain. So, this month, I’m taking up the challenge to share what I know about this important, yet somewhat elusive principle.

The International Cooperative Alliance defines Autonomy and Independence as follows: “Cooperatives are autonomous, self-help organizations controlled by their members. If they enter into agreements with other organizations, including governments, or raise capital from external sources, they do so on terms that ensure democratic control by their members and maintain their cooperative autonomy.”

At the most basic level, the fourth principle indicates that GreenStar is controlled by us, the member-owners who actually use the Co-op, not by outside, unaffiliated interests or shareholders. We remain independent from outside entities by controlling our own cooperative destiny through individual equity payments, purchases, voting power, and other forms of participation. As members, we collectively own the Co-op. In fact, we’re now seeking to consistently use the word owner to refer to our members in order to highlight that point!

Delving deeper into this principle, we can locate the notion that cooperatives exist to serve the interests and needs of their owners. To me, this is where “self-help” comes in. We’re here to help one another meet shared needs through a set of shared values. GreenStar began because a group of people shared a desire to secure healthy, unadulterated food, grown or produced in ways that ensure both environmental and economic sustainability. The cooperative model allowed them to fulfill their needs independent of a conventional food distribution system that didn’t match their values.

To that end, the fourth principle really plays out in how we purchase the products we sell — especially in our commitment to local farmers and producers, and to Fair Trade enterprises. In the conventional grocery world, manufacturers pay substantial fees for store shelf space. This means that those manufacturers with the most financial resources are in a much better position to secure valuable shelf space, thus jeopardizing the ability of small manufacturers to stay in business.
Co-ops run their operations differently. Alexis Self, GreenStar’s Marketing Assistant Manager, shared a great slogan used by our fellow cooperators at the Common Market in Frederick, MD: “We Buy for You, We Don’t Sell for Them.” As Alexis rightly states, “GreenStar buys the products our owners want, rather than sells what manufacturers want us to sell.” This is why, at co-ops, it’s very common to see local and Fair Trade products enjoying the most coveted shelf and display spaces in the store.

The fourth principle also stresses the importance of ensuring democratic member-owner control and maintaining our cooperative autonomy when we enter into agreements or raise capital. Elizabeth Archerd, the former Director of Community Relations at the Wedge Co-op in Minneapolis, MN, states that the fourth principle is “meant to remind all of us that cooperatives are not supposed to surrender their fundamental identity in order to get money or business partners.”

Our Owner Investment Program, which is designed to raise funds for our West End store relocation, is an excellent example of this notion. Only our member-owners can invest through this program, which means the only return on investment being issued is to our owners specifically — not to outside interests. Furthermore, limitations are written into GreenStar policies that stipulate where we can borrow money from — namely, local institutions and banks, as well as cooperative enterprises, credit unions included. These limitations ensure that we raise capital with our values in mind, helping to support and strengthen both local and cooperative economies, rather than non-local or more capitalistic structures.

In retrospect, maybe this wasn’t such a hard principle to explain after all. By maintaining our autonomy, and keeping our governance in our owners’ hands, we’re simply in a better position to do business according to our values. We’re able to put our owners’ and community’s needs first as we work together to create a strong, sustainable, livable local economy.