Once again, I’d like to thank all of you for your thought-provoking comments to Nick’s post, “Co-operatives: The Democracies of our Economy?” Many interesting issues were raised relating to the current financial meltdown and the roles and responsibilities of corporations and governments. Another common theme that many of you discussed was the question of the size of these institutions and the degree to which power has been corrupted as more and more of it gets retained in the hands of a few.
So I’d like to ask you all a question which might seem a bit naïve…
It seems like we all agree that small is better. Andrew quotes Schumacher: “for a large organization to work, it must behave like a related group of small organizations.” Nick writes, “Bigger is not better, and the further removed corporations become from their clients, the less democratic, and quite frankly, human they become.”
So here’s the question. At what point does an organization, be it a corporation, a non-profit, a worker-owned co-operative or a small farmer co-operative, cross that line? When does the question of size begin to erode an organization’s ability to remain true to its principles and values, its democratic structure (assuming there was one) and its deliverables? What other factors, besides size, come into play? Is it ownership? Leadership? Something else altogether?
I recently visited a café in Cambridge. The messaging on their walls was very confusing – a Transfair logo was displayed above the register, while other posters seemed to be criticizing Fair Trade. So I asked the manager to clarify if the coffee they were serving was Fair Trade, Direct Trade, or some other type of ethical trade. “We don’t serve Fair Trade coffee”, he told me, “we support small farmers.” That was an interesting take. When I pressed him, he continued, “We support small farmers. My understanding of Fair Trade is that they only buy from BIG co-operatives.” I had to laugh. I thought big agribusiness was the enemy. When did it become small farmer co-operatives that had grown in membership?
Last week, I did a demo at the Harvest Co-operative in Jamaica Plain. We were introducing consumers to our new campaign in support of small farmers, a just food system, and a healthy planet. Folks seemed genuinely excited about this new initiative. One woman approached me, “I was a big supporter of Equal Exchange in the 80s and 90s,” she told me, “and then I heard about how successful you were becoming, and how much you were growing. Quite honestly, I just assumed that since you had gotten big, you must have also become corporate.” She seemed relieved when I assured her that nothing could be further from the truth, telling her about our 4-1 payscale (the highest paid workers can’t make more than four times what the lowest paid workers make), our re-affirmation of our social mission, and other features of our still-democratic workplace.
So there you go. But it does raise questions. If one believes in this model, then it stands to reason that you’d want to grow it, reach more people and have greater impact. Equal Exchange is already the largest Fair Trade organization in the U.S. And we recently created our ambitious 20-year vision; to be the engine of “a vibrant mutually cooperative community of two million committed participants trading fairly one billion dollars a year in a way that transforms the world.” Not too daunting.
But how do we do this? How can we have the impact we’d like for farmers and consumers, and still retain our democratic structure, our values and our principles? Our model is already stressed, but I’m going to say we are still one of the most democratic businesses out there.
I’m curious, what do the rest of you think?