Local view: Cooperatives have huge positive effect on society

Since 1958, the United Nations has been selecting an annual theme ranging from the mundane (Year of the Tourist) to the regionally important (Year of Kyrgyz Statehood) to the globally significant (Year of International Peace). This year is the In...

Since 1958, the United Nations has been selecting an annual theme ranging from the mundane (Year of the Tourist) to the regionally important (Year of Kyrgyz Statehood) to the globally significant (Year of International Peace). This year is the International Year of Cooperatives.

The international recognition is deserved.

Worldwide, the U.N. estimates that about 1 billion people are individual members of cooperatives. According to the International Cooperative Alliance, the world's top 300 cooperatives alone have annual revenues close to the gross domestic product of the world's ninth-largest economy, Spain.

U.S. figures also are impressive: More than 29,000 cooperatives do business at 73,000 locations with annual revenue of about $652 billion. And they provide about 2 million jobs.

So are cooperatives just big businesses by another name, a slightly skewed version of capitalism?


It's true cooperatives make profits. They would not survive long without them. They pay taxes, follow thousands of rules like other businesses and operate in very competitive business environments.

So why have an International Year of Cooperatives?

"Cooperatives are a reminder to the international community that it is possible to pursue both economic viability and social responsibility," U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon said.

Economic viability means a business that performs well in a particular sector, like farmers who together sell their products to achieve an economy of scale not possible alone. Or like people with common interests who form credit unions (employees of company N, residents of X community, etc.) and combine their resources to achieve financial goals. Not so complicated, and not so different or so far.

The secretary general made a point, too, of "social responsibility," barely hinting at the cooperative difference. Worldwide, cooperatives follow a set of seven principles that are translated into Swahili, French, Japanese and many other languages. They are: voluntary and open membership, democratic member control, members' economic participation, autonomy and independence, training and information, cooperation among cooperatives and concern for community.

I'd like to cite examples of these principles from my experience with Whole Foods Co-op in Duluth.

Whole Foods Co-op is owned by many of its customers. There are nearly 7,000 owners, and each of us has one vote. We invest our money in our business. We elect our board of directors, amend our bylaws, help guide the strategic direction our business takes and influence how we fulfill the cooperative's principles in our community. We benefit from owner-only discounts. We share in profits when annual rebates are declared. We stress educating not just our owners or our employees but the community as well through outreach to adults and children.

We participate with other cooperatives, here and abroad, in organizations that nurture small producers and encourage sustainable production. We are the largest retailer of locally grown food in this region. We share our experience and knowledge with other cooperatives. When we all do better, we all do better. In short, we live and work those principles while providing decent stable jobs for more than 100 people.


For us, sustainability means a good return on the money we invested in 2005 when we built our present store. Both sales and owners have nearly tripled in those seven years, and the trends remain positive.

Whether they're huge, multinational cooperatives like Mondragon in Spain or tiny like the Malawi Dairy Development Alliance in Africa, which recently was visited by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, cooperatives have a huge and positive effect on families. In these times of economic dislocation, overall uncertainty with our future and massive threats to our well-being, cooperatives have been a resilient source of economic and social strength.

And that, I feel, is certainly enough reason for an "International Year of the Cooperative."

David Helf of Duluth is a director of the board of Whole Foods Community Co-op Inc. An annual co-op meeting is scheduled for Saturday, Oct. 13 at the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center.

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