What are Cooperatives Anyway?

At the end of the 18th century, cooperatives began when people started creating organizations through which they could buy products as a group, without giving extra money to a commercial middleperson. For 200 years, cooperatives have been proving that democratically controlled businesses can meet the need for healthier products, workplace environments and business-community relations. Today, there are over 700 million members of cooperatives worldwide, providing everything from grain elevator maintenance to Internet access.

There are several types of cooperatives:

Consumer cooperatives. They are most often associated with health food stores but are not limited to edible industries. Sportswear giant REI is one example of a consumer cooperative not related to food.

Worker cooperatives or collectives. They are businesses owned and controlled by employees and can be found in nearly any type of business. Minneapolis’ very own Seward Cafe is an example of a worker cooperative. In agriculture, worker cooperatives are common among farmers, who pool resources to gain the benefits of being a large business.

Non-profit housing and land cooperatives. They buy buildings or land and provide real estate for members, taking the properties off the speculative market.
If I could afford it, I would
Stephanie Lundeen, co-Founder, Eastside Food Co-op

I used to think I couldn’t afford shopping at a co-op, but lately I’m not sure I can afford not to buy the earth-friendlier products and produce most often found in retail co-ops. Or as Paul Hawkens muses, in his seminal book, The Ecology of Commerce, “Why is it that products which harm and destroy life can be sold more cheaply than those that don’t?” His question begs the relevance of price when matters of planetary, community and individual health are at stake. By joining a co-op, you can have a voice, help create sustainable work environments and strive for a better world through the power of cooperation.

What makes co-ops so different?
Cooperatives often draw on values from environmental and social justice movements, and thus create very different connections to their communities than purely profit-driven companies. It is also no coincidence that many cooperatives share roots in the social rebellions of the 1960-s and 1970’s. Many cooperatives often distinguish themselves in three ways: their products, their environments, and their relationship with the community.

Products
Cooperatives have had the greatest successes where more mainstream businesses have neglected a group of consumers or the demand for a product. For almost 20 years, form the bike boom of the early 1970’s until the growth of the bicycle advocacy in the early 1990’s, the bicycle industry all but ignored cycling as practical transportation. So environmentally-minded people were forced to start their own manufacturing and operations shops. To a lesser degree, the same pattern has prevailed for the most ubiquitous cooperative business, the health food store. Organic and whole foods were all but impossible to get at for-profit supermarkets until recently.

Environments
Another way in which cooperatives differ from most for-profit business is in the design of their retail space. With cooperatives, there is often less diversion between “customer space” and “work space” than at a typical store. Bicycle repair stands aren’t hidden in a bike room at a bike shop and cooking and prep are done out in the open at a restaurant. Many cooperatives also demonstrate commitments to social responsibility, and these benefits extend to workers and member-customers alike. The Rainbow Grocery in San Francisco offers a child care center and homemade hot meals for lunch or dinner.

Community
Cooperatives also have very different relationships with their communities than most for-profit businesses. Cooperative business is cooperation among cooperativesÑwhich can lead to remarkable community-building. For example, Cody’s, a local independent bookstore, works with PedEx to offer same-day home delivery of reading material, in an effort to compete with Amazon.com. A creative benefit to volunteers and employees, while working with the community, could be volunteers getting “paid” with performance passes or discounts at other local businesses.

Support your Twin Cities Cooperatives:

Retail Grocery:

Anoka Food Co-op and Cafe
Capital City Food Co-op
East Side Food Coop
Hampden Park Food Co-op
Lakewinds Natural Foods
Linden Hills Food Co-op
Mississippi Market Food Co-op
North Country Co-op
River Market Community Co-op
Seward Co-op Grocery
Spiral Food Co-op
Valley Natural Foods Co-op
Wedge Community Food Co-op