National Co-op Month: Power to the People

By: Ryan Reed Campbell, Outreach Coordinator | 2017-10-10

October is National Co-op Month! Co-ops (cooperatives) are everywhere and have been growing in popularity for decades all around the world. Obviously, we are the Whole Foods Co-op, a natural food cooperative founded by Erie’s grassroots community in 1978. But did you know the Whole Foods Co-op itself is part of a Co-op? Not only that, we do business with other Co-ops to purchase goods for our store. Confused about this co-op of co-ops doing business with co-ops? Here’s a brief history. In the Industrial Revolution of the late 1700s, cooperatives began to take on a formal identity. People were moving in droves from rural areas into urban areas, sacrificing the ability to grow their own food. They needed a privately-owned store to provide food for them, a completely new way of life for them that we accept as the norm in today’s culture.

These newly-arrived farmers, consumers, workers, and producers held little power, finance, or influence in the cities they moved to. To counter this, they decided to band together to gain economic clout. By making food purchases together, sharing supplies and ideas, and sharing the costs of other services, they managed to keep their operating costs low and their numbers in the black. And because they answered only to themselves, changes could be made quickly and simply. They were truly businesses run by the people, for the people.

In 1843, textile mill workers in Rochdale, England went on strike. The strike failed, and the millworkers were out of jobs. After considering the ideas of another strike or turning to charitable organizations, they decided, instead, to focus on improving their own lives by taking matters into their own hands. They focused on the first, and arguably most important, aspect: feeding themselves and their families. They needed a food store that was an alternative to the mill company’s food store, so twenty-eight of the displaced workers banded together to form the Rochdale Equitable Pioneers Society.

The Rochdale Pioneers saved their money for over a year to open their first store on a cold December evening in 1844. The founders offered butter, sugar, flour, and oatmeal, but they added an unexpected item to their list last-minute. The gas company refused to supply gas for the newly-formed cooperative’s lights, so they were forced to buy candles in bulk to light their store. The founders then sold the candles they didn’t end up using to their members.

To avoid making the same mistakes earlier cooperative societies made, Rochdale Pioneers developed a list of operating principles to govern their organization. This 19th-century list formed the basis for the modern standard of co-op’s developing their own “cooperative principles.”

The People of the United States took note of the success of Co-ops in England and began forming their own co-ops around this time. Most co-ops were structured for the benefit of the farmer, keeping their costs as low as possible by using joint purchasing power and influence. However, most late-19th-century co-ops failed due to poor management, lack of invested capital, or a failure of member understanding of cooperative principles.

It wasn’t until the early 1900s that Co-ops began to take off. By now, consumer protection co-ops were becoming popular in an effort to protect consumers from unfair practices of private and company stores. These consumer cooperatives gained and lost popularity in waves over the course of the 20th century, with the first wave being what was called the Rochdale Plan.

The Rochdale Plan organized consumers into buying groups. These groups would then purchase their goods from a cooperatively-owned wholesaler. The wholesaler would make efforts to convert these buying clubs into retail outlets by supplying them with the management, inventory, and capital needed to run a business. By 1920 there were 2,600 known consumer co-ops in the United States, almost all of them being their own established stores. 80 percent of co-ops were located in towns with populations of less than 2,500, which highlights the importance of cooperation in small communities.

Unfortunately, the wholesalers began having internal problems due to the rapid growth this new system created and were unable to supply their new retailers effectively. Because of this, the whole system collapsed, and most of the 2,600 co-ops were closed before 1930.

The second wave came with the Great Depression. President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal stimulated the growth of consumer co-ops all across the United States, namely in urban areas. Some of these co-ops continued on and are still open today. However, most of them closed due to declining membership.

The third wave began in the 1960s and 1970s. The spread of the ideas and philosophies of counterculture led to brand new co-ops founded by young and idealistic members. These co-ops’ cooperative principles were specifically tailored to the idea of equality for all rather than what preceding co-ops had practiced. Most stores sold only bulk, unrefined foods and many had experimental hours, limited availability, and other stipulations. Some stores were run by paid staff, while some were entirely volunteer-run.

These co-ops became base building blocks for the modern natural foods industry. Some co-ops thrived and continue to grow today, while some folded early on due to the same problems older co-ops faced such as declining membership, poor management, lack of availability, etc.

In 1999, many of the food co-ops across the country organized into a larger governing co-op called National Cooperative Grocers Association (now, just National Cooperative Grocers). The idea was to create a co-op of co-ops; to band together to organize, market, and purchase goods jointly as well as to support each other in the face of competition from the rising health food industry.

The Whole Foods Co-op, one of the fortunate successes of the counterculture-fueled co-op movement, joined NCGA (NCG) in 2003. We work with many other co-ops such as Equal Exchange (coffee and chocolate), Middlefield Cheese, and Organic Valley (milk and cheese), just to name a few.

Co-ops are about fairness and democratic control of the business while protecting consumers and producers from being exploited. The Whole Foods Co-op continues to operate under the principles of open and voluntary membership; member economic participation; democratic member control; autonomy and independence; education, training, and information; cooperation among cooperatives, and concern for community. And the Whole Foods Co-op will always be owned by the Erie Community and will always exist to enrich and benefit the Erie Community.