Co-ops transform communities and encourage forward-thinking business practices

©Akim Aginsky 2017

Co-ops of all kinds are all around you. More than 800 million people around the world belong to cooperatives, and at least 100 million of them are employed by co-ops. And more often than you probably realize, co-ops play a vital part in your everyday life.
Most of us are used to cooperating, and we naturally understand that we must join forces with others to accomplish tasks that we can’t achieve alone. We form businesses – non-profit and for-profit corporations, limited liability companies, and partnerships – to help us work together to efficiently create and sell products and services. These ordinary business structures have served communities and nations reasonably well, in that they formalize economic and legal relationships and bring people together to work. However, there is an alternative business structure that is less well known, probably because it’s easy to mistake a cooperative business structure for an ordinary business.
Consider the cup of coffee and cranberry muffin you recently enjoyed. That premium Sumatra Siborong-Borog coffee was likely purchased from a grower co-op in Indonesia. The flour in the muffin started as wheat from a farmer-owned, grain elevator co-op in the Midwest, and those cranberries might be from Ocean Spray, a producer-owned co-op.
Surpised? Cooperatives or co-ops provide products and services just like non-profit and for-profit corporations, limited liability companies, partnerships, and sole proprietorships. From the outside, it’s easy to mistake a co-op for an ordinary type of business, but what goes on behind the scenes makes co-ops radically different from all other business structures. Unlike many corporations, BriarPatch Food Co-op’s success does not reward outside investors, but returns success in the form of investment back into the Co-op, benefits and discounts for members, and surplus revenue divided among current members in proportion to how much they purchase at the Co-op.
In addition to a co-op’s commitment to serving its members, most adhere to a set of seven internationally recognized principles (see page 14). As a result, many co-ops set a standard for the surrounding business community with a commitment to environmental and social responsibility. The BriarPatch Food Co-op Board of Directors (all democratically elected) are guided by a set of directives called Ends Policies (see page 14).
If you think of a business structure as a framework for making a profit and/or serving a cause, then co-ops are frameworks for cooperation to serve its members and the community. The cooperative structure allows people to get what they want in a way that better meets their economic, social, and cultural needs. Ordinary business structures may serve many masters, but a cooperative exists to serve its owners/members and the interests of the owners/members’ community. This service to owners and community is sustainable, because cooperative owners/members also own their co-op and have the choice to fully participate in business decisions and governance.
And because cooperation builds strong bonds between the people who use products and the people who supply them, co-ops offer a successful example of how to transform the way business is done. Instead of a corporate system that builds in profits for multiple links in a frequently anonymous chain of production, delivery, and sales, co-ops are often the direct link between a farm, ranch, or product creator, and a co-op shopper. Co-ops research, know, and share the sources of the products they sell, and co-op owners/members influence their co-op’s purchasing practices and trust that their co-op holds to a set of principles and standards. Buying and eating food is not optional, so it makes sense that we should have somewhere to buy food that is here to help us meet that need, and not to make extra money for businesses that operate out of the region. Food cooperatives are locally owned by the people who shop there.

Four questions about food co-ops

Do I have to be an owner to shop at BriarPatch?
Everyone is welcome to shop at BriarPatch. Once you’ve discovered the benefits of co-op shopping, you might want to find out more about the benefits of ownership, too.

As an owner, do I have to join the Board (or work part-time at the co-op, or do something else I’m not really sure I want to do).
All you have to do is enjoy shopping at the Co-op! Sure, you can run for the board or participate in co-op events if you like, but your level of participation is always entirely up to you.

Do I have to pay an annual fee to be an owner?
To become a BriarPatch owner, you invest a small amount of money in the form of shares – the minimum is $20 once every six months until you reach the maximum total investment of $200 (or $10 once every six months for low income). BriarPatch also accepts the entire $200 fully paid share investment at one time. As soon as you invest, from $20/$10 to the full $200, your shares make you a co-owner of the co-op, along with the other 7000+ active members. If for any reason you decide to leave the co-op, there is a process to have your investment refunded.

If the co-op is open to everyone, why become an owner?
While co-ops welcome everyone, there are definite benefits to becoming a owner. For instance, owners can vote in co-op issues, so they get a say in how the co-op works and where it spends its money. When the co-op turns a profit, owner may receive a patronage refund in proportion to their purchases.