by Lynn MacDonald
Having lived in Humboldt County for over ten years, I know well the pioneer spirit and sense of isolation and independence that thrives here. To a large degree, this spirit has helped to make the North Coast Cooperative what it is today – a successful, community-based business. However, within that sense of isolation and independence also lies the seeds of a serious weakness for a cooperative.
At the risk of boring you with the principles of cooperation one more time, I’d like to review the reasoning behind the sixth principle of cooperation – cooperation among cooperatives. Since 1844, customer cooperatives have found that they had success to the degree they adhered to the principles of cooperation laid down in Rochdale, England by a group of weavers. In 1966, the International Cooperative Alliance perceived a missing ingredient and added another principle – that of cooperation among cooperatives.
Jerry Voorhis, former United States Congressperson, former president of the Cooperative League, and tireless promoter of all types of cooperatives, expressed it this way, “…there is too little cooperation among cooperatives…the centers of real cooperative strength do not, with a few outstanding exceptions, mutually support one another. It is not possible to point to a coordinated cooperative movement (in the U.S.) which has a united spirit and a will to so mobilize its resources that it can inject some much needed health and justice into the markets of the nation.”
The purpose of the consumers cooperative is, after all, at least two fold – to serve as a focal point for people to organize to meet their needs through cooperation and to impact the larger economic market in terms of quality, price and distribution on behalf of the consumer owners. The first goal is achieved in the local community through the democratic control structures of the cooperative. The second goal can only be achieved in a larger arena (through the cooperation of cooperatives). Only through the pooling of the buying power of cooperatives throughout the United States is the North Coast Cooperative able to have Co-op label products on the shelf, for example. This pooled buying power and private label pack allows the co-ops to design the most progressive product label in the country, and in some cases, to determine the contents of a product pack, as with Co-op label unsalted tomatoes and natural pack fruits.
However, the combined buying volume of all the co-ops is still too small to impact the production process in a major way, or more importantly, to make significant price demands. This problem is in part due to the fact the total retail volume of the consumer cooperatives in the United States is insignificant (far less than 1%) in relation to the grocery industry.
However, part of the problem is due to a lack of discipline and commitment of the co-ops themselves. Everyone wants to be a buyer; every co-op wants its own buying power in this way. The same grass roots, self help ideal which builds strong, local cooperative societies can also be the tragic flaw which dooms them to irrelevance in the market place.
This dilemma has been going on in cooperatives for years. The point has been proved time and time again as we squander our resources reinventing the wheel. We no longer have the time or luxury to debate the question. The grocery industry has continued to concentrate its resources every year while the consumer cooperatives have stood still arguing the merits of decentralization. Either we move to act together and to buy together, or we will cease to move at all.