Sustainability-Coops Leading the Way

In the 2013 Blueprint for a Co-operative Decade, the ICA authors make the following case:

“Quite simply, a co-operative is a collective pursuit of sustainability. Co-operatives seek to ‘optimise’ outcomes for a range of stakeholders, without seeking to ‘maximise’ the benefit for any single stakeholder. Building economic, social and environmental sustainability should therefore be one of the over-arching motivations and justifications for a growing co-operative sector. It offers an answer to the question of why co-operatives are necessary and beneficial, at this historical juncture. Put simply, co-operatives are more efficient than investor-owned businesses, once a more complete range of costs and benefits (present and future) is taken into account.”

The concept of sustainability includes more than being good stewards of the Earth and the life it supports. The blue print specifically calls for action in the co-op community regarding innovations in accounting, promoting distinct management practices, strengthen and integrate the co-op business network, and be leaders in human centric technology advances. The authors also urge evidence gathering and case studies to further promote the co-op difference and advantage in creating true sustainability beyond a marketing message.

Co-ops have definitely led the way on this front over the last 10 years. Even I have played a role in helping to meet this challenge goal.

  • In the worker co-op world, at least three bookkeeping/accounting co-ops have sprung up to provide support for co-operative with co-op knowledgeable bookkeeping. The ICA just recently announced a push for a Co-op version of accounting standards distinct from those designed for capitalist profit centric firms.
  • A number of colleges picked up co-op management classes (Amherst, The Evergreen State College, and most recently Rutgers) as well as a broader offering by my alma mater, St. Mary’s that includes a certificate and diploma option along with its Masters. Some have these efforts include partnerships with development groups such as DAWI and NWCDC. In the Caribbean nation of Trinidad and Tobago, The Cipriani College of Cooperative and Labor Studies has been active in creating a 4 year degree on co-op management. Even Mondragon University moved slightly away from its traditional “Chicago School teaching” and created the Teampreneur model the Mondragon Team Academy.
  • NCBA and others have worked to help create regional and local networks. Locally, through initial leaders of the Olympia Food Co-op, an organization called Co-Sound seeks to promote and network co-ops in the Thurston County community. The recent series of roundtables were part of this effort as well.
  • NCBA/CLUSA also created the annual Co-op Impact Conference held in D.C. with a biannual fair on the Capitol Mall to promote the co-op model to policy makers.
  • The year after the blueprint, Canadian co-ops and universities published a collection of case studies and reports on the community impact of co-ops (which you can download here). I authored one of the case studies based on Union Cab and was also an editor. If I can further toot my own horn (and why not), my dissertation was a comparative case study of three types of worker management in cooperatives (you can access it on the resource page).
  • Cincinnati Union Co-op Initiative and 1Worker:1Vote will be launching a national network of union-coops next year and holds its 4th biannual Symposium in a couple of weeks (I will be there and reporting).
  • CDF started a National Homecare Co-op Conference to specifically assist the home care co-ops (about 15 of them now) in networking and mutual support. I think that they need to move it away from Dulles and not make it an annual event, but it is a very important event.
  • CooperationWorks! celebrates its 20th anniversary and has created a strong network of co-op developers based on a set of ethics known as the Madison Principles and committed to build mutual support within the co-op development community.

I think that the only area that I haven’t really seen the co-op world move forward, in a really focused way, is in creating new technological tools. Of course, this is starting to change. Groups like Clatskanie Co-op offer a model for controlling our internet. There is a new push by Electric Co-ops to offer broadband. Platform co-ops are being talked about and there are some apps such as Resonate which is a multi-stakeholder version of Spotify. Both Resonate and Clatskanie use blockchain technology and digital currency. I’m a member of social.coop which is trying to create a social network to offset Twitter and Facebook (but its functionality is a bit limited). Resonate needs a couple of big names to move from Spotify to its platform. Most of the tech is nibbling around the edges, but I can that they are today’s version of the “buying clubs” that created the consumer food co-op network that we have today.

Could the international co-op community create its own digital currency that would be accepted by every co-op on the globe?

I haven’t talked a lot about carbon sequestration or the more traditional concepts of sustainability with regards to environmentalism. Largely this is because co-ops tend to already be ahead of the curve (although some producer and electric co-ops still cling to carbon fuel). Organic Valley has been a major leader with a pledge to use 100% renewable energy by 2019. Worker co-ops also tend to have a strong environmental focus since they live in the community where they work.

In terms of the Co-op Decade, Co-ops have absolutely led the way in terms of creating sustainable, human centric communities. There is always more to do, of course, and in the US co-ops still largely remain isolated from each other by sector and industry (and even within sectors at times).

There is also a fair amount a territoriality and sectarianism within the development community. Some groups really don’t play well in the sandbox with others (refusing to share resources, operating in territories without giving a heads up to the local developers, refusing to acknowledge other groups in the same development arena). I have gone to conferences where I hear speaker from some groups talk as if they are the only ones doing co-op work in the country or even in State of Washington. It is frustrating and can cause a lot of confusion and distrust.

Nevertheless, the co-op community is growing. Its overall message of sustainability resonates with more and more people everyday. I recently attended a traditional business conference and found a general understanding of co-ops and eagerness to engage with co-ops. That would not have been the case 10 years ago. Co-ops are human centric and non-partisan. That strength provides them with the ability to push this message of sustainability that other business models can’t.

About John McNamara

John spent 26 years with Union Cab of Madison Cooperative and currently helps develop co-op in the Pacific Northwest. He holds a Ph.D. in Business Administration and Masters in Management: Co-operatives and Credit Unions from Saint Mary's University. He has served on the board of the US Federation of Worker Cooperatives and the Board of Governors for the late, great Democracy at Work Network. He currently sits on the Co-op Circle for Sociocracy for All. He has taught on worker co-operatives and democratic management in the summer at The Evergreen State College and Presidio Graduate School.
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