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The rising importance of co-ops

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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