In this coming year of 2012 cooperative enterprises will have a little time in the sun since the United Nations has designated it the Year of Cooperatives. An entire year of activities and focus on a business model that was codified in 1844 by ordinary people who were tired of adulterated food and being taken advantage of by large business interests and shady shopkeepers. This start in Rochdale, England of the international cooperative movement has given people a quiet way to “stick it to the man” in a business sense for many generations.
The means of pooling capital and ownership brought to the level of the ordinary consumer and worker is what a cooperative enterprise means to me. Consumer owned cooperatives have occupied that space between the national grocery chain and the mom and pop store for generations in this country, very quietly. Through the up and down business cycle and wave upon wave of growth, development and retrenchment, the consumer owned grocery store has maintained values of people, community and cooperation.
One could say that the works of Ben Franklin’s Junto and the resulting mutual insurance companies and the contributor-ship may have been one of the first cooperative business organizations in the, “new world.” Under the 1844 Rochdale plan, in 1862 a small group in South Philadelphia led by British emigre Thomas Phillips started the Union Cooperative no. 1 which becomes Philadelphia’s first consumer-owned grocery store on the 900 block of Federal Street.
All these years later, another group in South Philadelphia is organizing to form the South Philly Food Co-op in that same neighborhood (hmmm, I wonder if the beards are the same). With the interest of this group and others in the Greater Philadelphia region, I had to look at why this was happening now and not a decade or two earlier? I realized that the first wave of cooperative business development happened right around the time of the Great Depression. Out of that springs forth in 1938 Recreational Equipment Incorporated, known as REI a consumer cooperative. Also out of this mix of turmoil comes the Swarthmore Food Co-op in 1937 because people wanted more control of their grocery by owning it.
Another wave of development happens in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s a time of recession in America, Mariposa Food Cooperative, Weavers Way Cooperative Association and Selene Whole Foods Cooperative form along with another 40 entities in and around Philadelphia selling food under a cooperative business structure. I see a theme forming in my head and today with the economy in disarray, a lack of trust of existing big business and their decisions that often put profits before people a new appreciation of this model expresses itself.
In the last three years, Weavers Way has expanded, Swarthmore has renovated and occupied a new storefront and Mariposa is about to move into a new and bigger building in West Philadelphia. Sadly Selene has closed up shop, a victim of the normal business cycles we are all subject to. In it’s place other consumer owned entities will rise up and they themselves will reorganize to have some beneficial presence in their community of Media, PA.
I’ve taken on as a personal mission to put into practice principles of cooperative business that revolve around concern for community and the cooperation among cooperatives by speaking with and advising groups seeking to organize to start and fund a cooperative grocery in their neighborhoods.
It just takes an idea and the efforts of many volunteers to make this a reality, to strengthen our local economy by building more Food Cooperatives. In February, I attended the groundbreaking of the new Creekside Co-op store in Elkins Park. In April I’m going to the grand opening of the new Mariposa store. All the while squeezing in organizing meetings, steering committee meetings, and board meetings in South Philadelphia, Francisville, Ambler, Doylestown, Kensington, Manayunk, and wherever else a group needs help to get started and keep going.
Learn more about the International Year of Cooperatives.
Support the National Cooperative Development Act of 2011 proposed by Congressman Chaka Fattah