The cooperative advantage

The United Nations has named 2012 the International Year of the Co-op and it has us thinking plenty about the cooperative model.  Co-ops are the fastest growing socio-economic movement in the world, with approximately 10 000 cooperatives and credit unions in Canada alone providing products and services to 18 million members!

The simple definition of a cooperative is ‘an enterprise that is owned and democratically controlled by its members’.  Co-ops empower individuals and encourage healthier and stronger communities by enabling people to pool their resources and share risks.  Cooperatives exist in virtually every sector of the economy including agriculture, financial services, and housing.  Among many many others, Hamilton has a car sharing cooperative and a developing renewable energy co-op,  and the Canadian Co-operative Association (formerly the Co-operative Union of Canada), the first national association for the Canadian co-op sector, was actually founded in our fine city in 1909!

While each co-op is unique, what all cooperatives have in common is that they are membership-based, are driven by social as well as economic concerns (or a triple bottom line), and are guided by seven internationally recognized principles including equality and solidarity.  Other reasons the cooperative model seems to be a great fit for The Mustard Seed:
  • The survival rate of co-ops is higher than that of traditional businesses.  A 2008 study in Quebec, for example, found that 62 percent of new co-ops are still operating after five years, compared with 35 percent for other new businesses.
  • The cooperative sector keeps dollars circulating within the local economy, provides secure employment and is a means to revitalize and sustain healthy communities.
  • Food co-ops create win-win relationships along the supply chain in an otherwise antagonistic agro-food industry.
  • Cooperatives use the one member/one vote system (not the one-vote-per-share system used by most businesses) which helps the cooperative serve common needs rather than the needs of a handful of individuals and ensures that people, not capital, control the organization.
We’ve been co-opted by the co-operative model, how about you?!

Meetings and more meetings … and growing excitement!

We’ve been busy!  At the end of April we connected with Peter Cameron of The Ontario Co-operative Association.  It was good to talk with someone articulating the importance of a co-operative model that brings democracy into business, and Peter was also able to highlight an idea we’d been wrestling with:  how important it is to see a positive ‘upward spiral’ in the Canadian grocery system in which consumers pay a fair price for food, which allows farmers to receive a fair price and grocery workers a fair wage, which continues the upward spiral creating a healthy food economy.  While it looks like the technical assistance funding that was once available for Ontario co-ops has been cut, we’re confident that through connections with experts like Peter we can continue to move The Mustard Seed from idea to reality!

We also learned a lot from John Richmond, Director at the West End Food Co-op in Toronto, who we spoke about some of the practical aspects of starting a food cooperative.  Starting a new business is a daunting process, and starting a new community grocery in an era of supermarket dominance is perhaps even more so.   John had lots of wisdom to share with us on subjects as varied as membership structures, board governance, capitalization, and educating people about cooperatives.  In a thriving local food system, there would be more places like the Westend Food Co-op.  We wish them success as they develop a food hub in Toronto’s Parkdale neighborhood!

And then last week we connected with Our Community Food Store in St. Catharines, a great group that is a little ahead of us in getting a co-op established in their downtown.  Our new St. Catharines friends share a really similar vision to us  – as they say on their website “We feel it is essential that there be a place to shop within our community that is accessible, affordable, and sustainable. It is our vision to both nourish our bodies and build community spirit in our downtown neighbourhoods.”  We were able to bounce ideas off each other, and learned a lot from them about using social media and developing a good consumer survey – wait for it, it’s coming soon!!