Cooperative Principle #7

Concern for Community 

The newest principle is a gift to cooperative educators, who have the job of explaining what can appear to the uninitiated as a dry subject: the cooperative model of doing business. The seventh principle is where we can talk about the cooperative vision, the values of democracy, human development, social responsibility and economics "as if people matter". Here's the full statement: "While focusing on member needs, cooperatives work for the sustainable development of their communities through policies accepted by their members."

The key phrase in this seemingly simple statement is "work for the sustainable development of their communities." The principle makes explicit what has been a foundation of the cooperative movement for 150 years. In essence, cooperatives are a blend of commerce and community. Community members form co-ops to obtain goods or services unavailable from the business sector or government. Co-ops employ and serve people who live in the community and unlike major corporations that frequently ship the profits off to investors, they return the fruits of the enterprise to the community.

The addition of this statement to the list of principles governing cooperatives is a result of "an international dialog among cooperatives about the societal concerns of sustainable development, human rights and environmental preservation", according to Theresa Steig of Puget Consumers Co-op in Seattle, Washington. It is not about "giving back to the community" or donations programs, she points out. Most cooperatives do both of these as their resources allow, but the new principle points to the vision of long-term, sustainable community development in which a variety of enterprises, cultural and economic, intertwine.

Steig lists a number of factors that make co-ops uniquely able to contribute to the health and longevity of communities which is referred to as sustainable development, including:

  • permanence (community-owned businesses don't pull out of the neighborhood because there are higher profit margins elsewhere);
  • initiative (co-ops start as a response to a keenly felt need); and
  • increased income (it doesn't benefit the co-op to pay less than fair wages, and profit stays in the community).

Cooperatives invest in human development, the human rights part of the equation by:

  • providing a structure for gathering to participate in decisions (referring to the co-op principle of democratic governance);
  • providing education to the staff and managers;
  • promoting an interest in democracy overall; and
  • integrating women as full participants.

Consumer cooperatives are especially likely to lead the way in environmental preservation. Our natural food co-ops link consumers and agricultural producers, and offer a selection of household, food and body care products produced with more environmental awareness.

Members of natural foods co-ops share certain values and concerns. We want food that nourishes us well and is produced without harming the land, water or farmers. We want complete and reliable information about the food we purchase, and we like the financial benefits we get from our memberships. But beyond these admittedly important concerns are others that we share: a desire for stable, healthy communities, job opportunities, democratic control over the powers that influence our lives. As our cooperatives mature, we need to look for other ways to contribute to the pressing needs in our communities.

Cooperative Education Column for Co-op Consumer News Nov/Dec 1996

Elizabeth Archerd,
Member Services Director, Wedge Community Co-op