The International Year of Co-ops
By Erbin Crowell
In the wake of a global recession that continues to devastate communities and livelihoods, people are hungry for alternatives to corporate greed and stock market speculation. As we look at continuing challenges such as climate change, unemployment and growing disparities of wealth and ownership, many in our communities are searching for models that will help us grow more just, sustainable, and resilient regional economies.
The fact that the United Nations (UN) has declared 2012 the International Year of Co-ops is an unprecedented opportunity to talk about the co-operative alternative. In establishing the Year, the UN recognized that co-ops “in their various forms, promote the fullest possible participation in the economic and social development of all people, including women, youth, older persons, persons with disabilities and indigenous peoples, are becoming a major factor of economic and social development and contribute to the eradication of poverty”. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon puts it more simply: “Co-operatives are a reminder to the international community that it is possible to pursue both economic viability and social responsibility.”
Co-ops represent a viable model of enterprise and a tangible expression of economic democracy, self-help, and community enterprise — a way of doing business that puts people and community before profit. Co-ops are also more common than one might think. The International Co-operative Alliance estimates that a billion people worldwide are members of co-ops, and an estimated 1 in 4 Americans are members of about 29,000 co-ops across our country. The co-operative model is also adaptable to all manner of purposes. Some common examples in our region include food co-ops, agricultural co-ops, credit unions and — yes — energy co-ops.
How can we take the opportunity of the Year of Co-ops to talk about people in our communities who have become “co-opreneurs” — innovators, activists and businesspeople engaged in the development of enterprises dedicated to meeting member needs and goals, and the advancement of their communities? How can we tell the stories of our businesses and remind people in this difficult economy and with so many challenges on the horizon of what it is possible to do together?
A few months ago the Neighboring Food Co-op Association (NFCA), a network of more than 20 food co-ops in our region, took a first step in this effort by approving a resolution recognizing the Year and dedicating itself to “efforts to raise the profile of co-operative enterprise, to demonstrate the benefits of co-ops in building local ownership and wealth, and to apply the co-operative model to new challenges and opportunities in our communities.” Partners such as the Valley Alliance of Worker Co-ops and the Cooperative Fund of New England quickly joined in as did the New England Farmers Union, which noted “a majority of our country’s 2 million farmers are members of about 3,000 agricultural co-ops, helping them to sustain their farms, livelihoods and communities.”
Our region is home to a vibrant co-operative community including producer co-ops and food co-ops, credit unions and worker co-ops, energy co-ops and artisan co-ops. As we look toward 2012, we have the opportunity to demonstrate the contribution of co-ops to our communities and to explore how we can use the co-operative model in new ways to help us realize visions of a more just, sustainable and resilient regional economy. To learn more, please visit www.nfca.coop/iyc.
Erbin Crowell is Executive Director of the Neighboring Food Co-op Association, a network of over 20 food co-ops in our region that are locally owned by more than 90,000 people. He also serves on the board of the National Cooperative Business Association. For more information, please visit www.nfca.coop.