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What is a Cooperative?

Cooperatives (or co-ops for short) are organizations where owners contribute equitably to the capital of the business and democratically control its operations. Consumer cooperatives are owned and controlled by the very same customers who use their services. Cooperatives provide things such as financial services, housing, hardware supplies, farm products, health care and food to their 700 million members worldwide. They provide an alternative to the traditional market model as the economic benefits of a cooperative operation are returned to the owner, reinvested in the co-op, or used to provide shopper services. Co-ops also adhere to seven internationally recognized principles.

Birth of the Modern Movement

Although there have been examples of cooperative endeavors throughout history, the modern cooperative movement traces its roots back to Rochdale, England. In 1843, a group of striking flannel weavers decided to take control of their food supply instead of relying on the corrupt company store. Twenty-eight people founded a food co-op and named themselves the Rochdale Equitable Pioneers Society.

Although the Rochdale Pioneers wasn't the first group to try forming a co-op, they were the first to make their co-op work and endure. To help others and to avoid the mistakes made by earlier co-op societies, they developed a list of operating principles governing their organization. These formed the basis for what are now known as the cooperative principles.

Co-ops in the United States

From colonial times on, most early co-ops were formed primarily to help Americans with agricultural production. Some helped farmers keep their costs low through joint purchase of supplies while others focused on marketing or provided storage or production services. However, it wasn't until the early 1900s that co-ops gained recognition as a truly viable business form and began to have their first true, long-lasting successes in the United States.

The New Wave

What is known as the "new wave" of consumer co-ops began in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Just like the Willy Street Co-op, these were born out of the ideas and philosophies of that period's counterculture. Most were set up to fit members' beliefs in equality and social justice and focused on whole, unrefined, and bulk foods. These co-ops were pioneers in a growing health-conscious society and in what came to be known as the "natural foods" industry. Although many of these co-ops experienced problems such as insufficient capital and inadequate membership support, those that survived are well-established and strong protégées of a long and rich consumer co-op legacy.