by Pamela Reagan October 2012
October is both Co-op and Fair Trade month—what better time could there be than now to celebrate co-ops all over the nation? Coinciding with the recent opening and upcoming celebration of our own new store, the United Nations declared 2012 as the International Year of the Co-op. Cooperative Enterprises Build a Better World is the 2012 October Co-op Month theme, and hopefully, we have certainly continued to do our part to help build (literally) a better world, starting in our own community!
These days, more and more co-ops are springing up everywhere in the U.S. It seems that cooperation becomes more prominent during economic stress apparently because people want to come together and make things happen—rather than going it alone. This appears to be one of the causes for the increase in co-ops forming all over the United States. In addition, as our food cooperative sector has matured and developed, we have participated in setting up better infrastructure and resources to assist groups who are attempting to start food co-ops in their communities, to give them a better chance of success. Across America, 120 million people are finding solutions to community needs by working with and forming cooperative businesses. This means cost savings, less risk, and more choices for America’s consumers and producers.
Co-ops and Fair Trade are natural partners in the expression of the Cooperative Principles, where autonomy, participation, and education all serve as tools to empower the farmers who produced the goods:
1. Voluntary and Open Membership
Cooperatives are voluntary organizations, open to all people able to use its services and willing to accept the responsibilities of membership, without gender, social, racial, political or religious discrimination.
2. Democratic Member Control
Cooperatives are democratic organizations controlled by their members—those who buy the goods or use the services of the cooperative—who actively participate in setting policies and making decisions.
3. Members’ Economic Participation
Members contribute equally to, and democratically control, the capital of the cooperative. This benefits members in proportion to the business they conduct with the cooperative rather than on the capital invested.
4. Autonomy and Independence
Cooperatives are autonomous, self-help organizations controlled by their members. If the co-op enters into agreements with other organizations or raises capital from external sources, it is done so based on terms that ensure democratic control by the members and maintains the cooperative’s autonomy.
5. Education, Training and Information
Cooperatives provide education and training for members, elected representatives, managers and employees so they can contribute effectively to the development of their cooperative. Members also inform the general public about the nature and benefits of cooperatives.
6. Cooperation among Cooperatives
Cooperatives serve their members most effectively and strengthen the cooperative movement by working together through local, national, regional and international structures.
7. Concern for Community
While focusing on member needs, cooperatives work for the sustainable development of communities through policies and programs accepted by the members.
One organization that works with Fair Trade organizations is the worker-owned co-op Equal Exchange out of West Bridgewater, MA. This organization was founded by three former New England Food Co-op Organization staffers (NEFCO was one of the organizations that merged to create Northeast Cooperatives, a former Brattleboro-based cooperatively-owned distributor). Fair Trade practices are making the world a better place for everyone involved. Equal Exchange has recently been very active in the P6 project in which our Co-op participated, as well as highlighting recent changes in the membership principles of TransFair, a move which Equal Exchange strongly feels can dilute the direct benefits to farmer cooperatives of opening their certification to large corporate-owned plantations and independent farmers. The result of this discussion will hopefully continue to improve farmer cooperative’s access to the marketplace.
Another project that formed out of Equal Exchange is the non-profit Red Tomato, which helps local farmers in the lower New England Area. Red Tomato’s goal in the greater Boston area is to “keep it local,” through a combination of market-based participants and institutional and private funding sources. Part of Red Tomato’s mission is to make these exceptional local products accessible to consumers where they shop and eat—supermarkets, natural grocery chains, coops, independent grocery stores, and institutional pioneers and restaurants that share a commitment to local products.
If you knew how many successful cooperatives surrounded you, and what a positive impact cooperative enterprise can have on the world, would you be more likely to join a
co-op? The UN believes you might. This is one of the primary goals of both the UN and the International Cooperative Alliance: to make all of us aware of the cooperatives in our own backyards, as well as their potential to influence our life and futures. The cooperative model is expected to be the world’s fastest-growing business model by 2025. If you are planning to travel anywhere, be sure to liven up your trip by checking out cooperatives in the area. You can find them online, in the “Co-op Finder” section on the National Cooperative Grocers Association website, www.strongertogether.coop, or in print in the Co-op Directory, available in our own Customer Service counter or to scan at our Shareholder Services.
Go co-ops! We are stronger together!