Celebrating National Co-op Month

By Erica Buswell | Oct 01, 2009

Belfast — October is National Co-op Month, a time when co-operatives all across the country strive to celebrate and educate our communities about the role, accomplishments and contributions of our nation’s cooperatives.

The co-op business model has enjoyed success for over 150 years: the first co-op was founded by a group of striking mill workers in Rochdale, England, in 1843—a member owned food store that was meant to provide their community with an alternative to the mill-owned company store. Co-op pioneers looked to their member-owned enterprises as tools for both economic and social empowerment, and as a means for helping themselves to meet their basic needs in the absence of available and necessary services. The new business model ultimately put ownership and control of these needed goods and services in the hands of the co-op’s members, thus promoting democracy and equality in ownership.

Today, the co-op business model enjoys success worldwide and is being utilized in multiple and diverse economic sectors. Here in the United States, a new study conducted by the University of Wisconsin Center for Co-operatives has identified 29, 284 co-ops in operation in 2009. These co-ops serve their communities by providing access to member-owned and controlled retail-enterprises, groceries, housing, financial services, health care, childcare, utilities, transportation, biofuels, farm supplies, education, insurance, and marketing support.
UWCC’s study set out to measure what kind of impact our nation’s co-ops have on our national economy.

By nature of design, as tools for economic empowerment, the correlation between having a co-op in town and the local wealth generated by those co-ops has been well-documented. While there are a few co-ops that enjoy status as Fortune 1000 companies—Land O’ Lakes and Cabot for example—until now, there was no way to measure whether or not these primarily locally-owned and controlled businesses were making any significant impact on the greater national economy.

What the study found was that in 2009, nearly 30,000 co-ops were identified to be operating at 73,000 places of business throughout the country, and generating an estimated $500 billion in revenue, $25 billion in wages, and 2 million jobs. These results account for the direct impact that co-operatives have on our national economy by measuring the revenue generated by sales, income paid to workers and owners (including patronage dividends), and the number of jobs provided by co-operative businesses.

The study was also designed to account for both the induced and indirect economic impact of co-operative business: those economic activities that result from spending by co-op workers and owners from wages and dividends, and business activities generated by the relationships that co-ops have with other businesses (a loan provided by a credit union for example). The results of the study show that when the data from direct, induced, and indirect economic impacts are combined, co-ops are contributing $654 billion in revenue, more than 2 million jobs, $75 billion in benefits and wages to their workforces, and $133.5 billion in value added income to our national economy.

To put this into perspective, General Motors, which ranked 6th on the list of Fortune 1000 companies in 2009, brought in $149 billion in revenues and employs 200,000 people worldwide, and American International Group (AIG) generated $11 billion in revenue and employs 116,000 people in 130 countries.

As co-ops, our business structure provides us with another distinct economic advantage in our economy: the wealth that we do generate must remain in the hands of co-operative, to be controlled and utilized in a fashion that our member-owners see fit, whether that means turning our profits into dividends for our members, re-investing it into the co-operative to improve delivery of goods and services, or sharing it with our greater community. Our wealth is essentially the common and equal property of all our member-owner-investors.

The results of UWCC's study reveal that co-operatives have a lot to celebrate this month: as businesses, we are making a positive impact on our national economic picture, we are providing a large number of jobs for our national workforce, and we are creating opportunities for the wealth that we are generating to be re-invested again and again.

In these challenging economic times, we hope you have an opportunity to reflect on the value of how the dollars that you spend at and invest in your co-operative are truly making a difference to the local and national communities that we serve, and we encourage you to support the following local and national consumer, worker, and producer co-ops that have a presence in our community: Belfast Food Co-op; Good Tern Co-op in Rockland; area credit unions; Fedco Seeds, Trees, and Bulbs; Art Alliance Gallery in Belfast; Cabot Creamery Co-operative; Organic Valley Family of Farms; Equal Exchange, Worker Co-op; Once Again Nut Butters; Blue Diamond Growers' Co-op, and True Value Hardware stores.

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