Sopris Sun

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The rising importance of co-ops

By Laurie Guevara-Stone

As we hear more bad news every day, from the high national debt, exorbitant unemployment numbers and stagnant wages, to havoc wreaked by climate change, it seems that our corporation-dominated system is proving unsustainable. We seem to be hitting both financial and ecological limits. However, there is good news with an innovative structure that can actually strengthen a local economy. This good news comes in the form of cooperatives.

Many people in the Roaring Fork Valley may be aware of the Roaring Fork Valley Co-op, or the Carbondale Food Co-op, but co-ops come in many forms and are becoming increasingly common.

Co-ops are owned by workers, residents, consumers, farmers, the community, or any combination of the above. What they have in common is that they circulate the benefits back to their member-owners, and these benefits ripple out to the broader community. As Marjorie Kelly of Yes! magazine explains, “Cooperative forms of ownership allow the well-being of people, the planet, and future generations to take priority over profits for shareholders and executives.”

Nearly 30,000 cooperatives exist in the United States, accounting for 2 million jobs, $75 billion in wages and benefits, and more than $500 billion in total revenue.

There are different forms of cooperatives including consumer co-ops, producer co-ops, purchasing co-ops and worker co-ops.

Consumer cooperatives are owned by the people who buy the goods or use the services. Credit unions, REI and on a more local level the Roaring Fork Valley Co-op and Carbondale Community Food Co-op are examples of consumer cooperatives.

Producer cooperatives, such as Organic Valley, are formed when producers band together to market their products.

Purchasing cooperatives are when small businesses pool resources to be competitive with large chains. Ace Hardware, which has stores in both Carbondale and Aspen, is part of a purchasing cooperative.

Worker cooperatives are owned and governed by employees.

Cooperative businesses are most often formed to meet the needs of people, not to maximize profit. Cooperatives around the world generally operate according to the same core principles and values, adopted in 1995 by the International Co-operative Alliance. At the heart of those principles are the core values of social and local economic development.

The seventh principle, “concern for community,” states: “While focusing on member needs, cooperatives work for the sustainable development of communities through policies and programs accepted by the members.” That’s why in these difficult social and economic times, more and more cooperatives are forming around the world.

The Roaring Fork Valley Co-op was founded in 1952 to serve the needs of local ranchers. Membership in the amount of $25 was collected to provide capital to build the business. Now, more than 60 years later, the co-op offers everything from pet supplies to gasoline to men’s, women’s and children’s clothing. Both members and non-members can shop at the co-op, and the lifetime membership still costs only $25, entitling you to patronage dividends at the end of the fiscal year.

An even older cooperative operating in the Roaring Fork Valley is Holy Cross Energy, founded in 1939. Holy Cross is a member-owned, not-for-profit electric cooperative utility providing electricity, energy products and services to more than 55,000 consumers primarily in Eagle, Pitkin and Garfield counties. Each consumer receiving electric service from Holy Cross is a member-owner, eligible to vote at meetings of members, to become a director, to receive member equity allocations and/or distributions and to share in the proceeds should Holy Cross be dissolved.

A more recent addition to the cooperative movement locally is the Carbondale Community Food Co-op (CCFC), which started selling memberships in 2007.

Carbondale Community Food Co-op strives to support local businesses and local agriculture whenever possible and is committed to providing healthy, organic, and sustainable food and products. For a lifetime membership of $75, members receive a 5 percent discount on all shelf items every Saturday and Sunday; cost plus 15 percent all the time on special and bulk orders; opportunities for volunteer hours (when needed by the business) to earn discounts up to 25 percent; a vote in all major decisions and an opportunity to elect and/or serve on the board of directors. The co-op is open to both members and non-members, and allows a more localized and personal experience when shopping for food.

Last year, with financial and ecological crises mounting worldwide, the U.N. named 2012 the Year of the Cooperative. As the nation struggles to recover from an economic crisis we can all do our part by supporting local cooperatives that help strengthen the local community.