Co-operatives: The Feeling is Mutual

BLOG Co-operatives: The Feeling is Mutual

Virtuous Natural Cycle
The virtuous cycle of the Natural Economy, described in this earlier post

A co-operative, basically, is a form of organization whose members share a common purpose (not earning a profit) and whose members are all equal. It’s as simple as that. It doesn’t differentiate between the role of the members — residents, employees, managers, customers, devotees, doesn’t matter. There are lots of variations on the theme, and many adulterations, but true co-ops meet the definition above.

They are different from other forms of organization that are hierarchical or have different levels of authority (not all equal). They are different from other forms of organization that have diverse objectives (shareholders, managers, employees and customers of a corporation, for example).

If you’re a member of Mountain Equipment Co-op (a Canadian co-op with three million members) for example, your shared purpose is sustainable outdoor recreation. Its members: the customers, the employees, the managers and the community residents, all meet on the ski trails or the mountain bike paths or the factory floor and talk about this purpose. The result is improved products and services, innovations, process improvements, collaborations, better health, community activities, improved safety, activism, customer satisfaction, and fun. The members work it out, together, as equals.

Co-operatives, mutual organizations and benevolent societies (all substantially forms of the same thing) have been around for nearly a millennium (they existed long before the industrial revolution). In many countries they did, and in some cases still do, make up a significant proportion of the economy. But they have been in decline for a century for two reasons: money, and greed. Hierarchical, limited-liability corporations are much more effective at raising, earning and hoarding, money than co-ops. Greedy self-serving lawyers, corporatists, robber barons and politicians have worked hand-in-hand to give corporations and their shareholders rights, tax incentives and privileges that no other form of organization, and indeed no person, has. We are now seeing the results — a soulless, unsustainable, collapsing, boom-and-bust economy dependent on endless growth of consumer spending and indebtedness.

We have no choice but to migrate to what economist Herman Daly calls a steady-state economy. In such an economy, corporations will have no advantage over co-operatives, and will in fact be disadvantaged by their bureaucracies, hierarchies, internal competitiveness and inherent distrust. And since they’re not-for-profit, co-operatives pay no taxes.

The age of the co-operative is coming, again. We are going to see them as the way to self-organize and self-manage businesses, as Natural Enterprises. We are going to see them as the way to self-organize and self-manage neighbourhoods, as Natural Communities. We are going to see them as the way to self-organize and self-manage learning through unschooling, as Natural Education.

If you want to set up a co-operative, know this: you do not have to incorporate or register in your local jurisdiction or country to operate as a co-operative. Don’t be bullied. Some jurisdictions won’t let you use the word “co-op” in your name unless you’re incorporated or registered. So don’t use the word. Just adhere to the values and principles, used for centuries all over the world:

Values: 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.


  1. Voluntary and Open Membership: Co-operatives are voluntary organisations, open to all persons able to use their services and willing to accept the responsibilities of membership, without gender, social, racial, political or religious discrimination.
  2. Democratic Member Control: Co-operatives are democratic organisations controlled by their members, who actively participate in setting their policies and making decisions. Men and women serving as elected representatives are accountable to the membership. In primary co-operatives members have equal voting rights (one member, one vote) and co-operatives at other levels are also organised in a democratic manner.
  3. Member Economic Participation: Members contribute equitably to, and democratically control, the capital of their co-operative. At least part of that capital is usually the common property of the co-operative. Members usually receive limited compensation, if any, on capital subscribed as a condition of membership. Members allocate surpluses for any or all of the following purposes: developing their co-operative, possibly by setting up reserves, part of which at least would be indivisible; benefiting members in proportion to their transactions with the co-operative; and supporting other activities approved by the membership.
  4. Autonomy and Independence: Co-operatives are autonomous, self-help organisations controlled by their members. If they enter to agreements with other organisations, including governments, or raise capital from external sources, they do so on terms that ensure democratic control by their members and maintain their co-operative autonomy.
  5. Education, Training and Information: Co-operatives provide education and training for their members, elected representatives, managers, and employees so they can contribute effectively to the development of their co-operatives. They inform the general public – particularly young people and opinion leaders – about the nature and benefits of co-operation.
  6. Co-operation among Co-operatives: Co-operatives serve their members most effectively and strengthen the co-operative movement by working together through local, national, regional and international structures.
  7. Concern for Community: Co-operatives work for the sustainable development of their communities through policies approved by their members.

If those values and principles aren’t a breath of fresh air to you, just take a look at the articles of incorporation, mission or values statement of any for-profit corporation.

My book Finding the Sweet Spot (see sidebar at right) provides a lot of other guidance for potential co-op founders and members: deciding what you will do, finding partners, doing world-class research, coming up with innovations that meet real human needs, building networks, collaboration, and resilience, and operating on principle (responsible, sustainable, joyful etc.)

Some great potential co-operatives for the 21st century, especially as stuff starts to fall apart:

  • farm and food co-ops (in New Zealand, just about the whole food industry is co-operative)
  • clothing production (the famed Mondragón co-op, in Spain, is in this and several other industries)
  • local enterprise financing (credit unions are a form of co-op)
  • local renewable energy co-ops (community-based grids)
  • health co-ops (especially in home care and preventative care)
  • education co-ops (community-based unschooling and takes-a-village child-raising networks)
  • building/living co-ops (intentional communities, co-operative building, co-op housing)

Co-ops could provide everything we really need to live a comfortable and pleasant life. This is entirely consistent with the relocalization movement, which, thanks to peak oil, global warming, corporatist excesses and unsustainable economics, is gaining ground and likely to continue to do so.

I, however, won’t be part of this important and exciting movement. I’ll write about it. I’ll tell the important stories. I’ll help people connect. I’ll outline the models that work, and those that don’t, and explain why. I’ll help people imagine what’s possible. That’s what I do. Someone else needs to do the spade work: do the research and the innovation, and make it happen, meeting important needs, one business at a time, community by community, around the world.

It’s not that hard, promise.

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4 Responses to Co-operatives: The Feeling is Mutual

  1. EJ says:

    After your starting over post I am surprised to see another series of posts with diagrams. For awhile there I thought you were actually going to do something (practical/useful). Look at these folks: We believe that growing our own food is the most radical and effective way to promote social justice, equality and sustainability. The list of things they grow should be enough to make you sit up and pay attention.While I don’t want to play “who is more radical, what is sustainability, is what I am doing effective” it seems to me that blogging an endless series of diagrams and then saying “I won’t participate” is not exactly “How to save the world”. But then I’m a fingers in the dirt, stick in the mud, boring kind of person.

  2. vera says:

    I, like the preceding poster, have been somewhat troubled by this entry, Dave. I know you are feeling your way ahead, so… here is my 2 cents. I think that if we want to see a new world, we must live it. We moderns live inside abstractions way too much. And we think up all sorts of stuff that is really unworkable or has unforeseen consequences. Experiential knowledge must be integrated with theory. And if you like and want to promote coops, then say you are not interested in participating, then… sorry, it does not make sense. After all, coops depend on rank and file members who are not involved in any other way except being customers and supporters. But without them, it is no go. I belong to a credit union; it costs me nothing, and my money is safer. I used to belong to a food coop in another area; all it took was a modest yearly fee. Sure, I did occasionally volunteer, and got better prices for that month. But it wasn’t required. If we don’t “put our money where our mouth is” and keep supporting *in our day to day actions* the more-of-the-same world, then what’s the bloody point?

  3. Tree Bressen says:

    Hi,Yea for co-ops. I’m a big believer and have devoted a lot of life energy to starting and supporting a variety of them. I think there should be a lot more, and i hope that happens in the future.That said, personally i don’t have any illusions that REI (the American equivalent of MEC) fulfills the statements you make about what a co-op is and does. As one of more than 3 million members, i have no input into anything other than to buy or not buy the products they carry, just as with any other large corporation. The people affiliated with REI are certainly not equal; rather, it is governed by a hierarchy the same as any LLC, with board members at the top, workers in the middle arranged in layers, and consumers at the bottom. Are they better than other companies? Yeah, i think they probably are. But let’s not overstate the case.Moving on to a more important point, i’ll join the small chorus of comments responding to your “I, however, won’t be part of this important and exciting movement” statement. I disagree, and for the same reason i’ve said before: i think you are setting up a *straw dualism* (if i may coin a phrase). If you write and share stories and help people connect, then you *are* part of the movement. Every movement needs networkers, storytellers, theorists, and researchers. To write, to talk, these are actions, these are not other than actions–every co-op, in fact every activity involving more than one humyn, requires communication and reflection, nothing in the social world happens without it.

  4. Already working on it, Dave. Several initiatives, some steps forward and some back, but we’re making progress. I use many of your models, so thank you.

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