Q: What do Seward Community Co-op in Minneapolis, Minnesota, Nature’s Bakery in Madison, Wisconsin, Tierra Nueva Coffee Co-operative in Boaco, Nicaragua, Cabot Creamery in Vermont, and Equal Exchange, a worker-owned Fair Trade co-operative in West Bridgewater, MA all have in common?
If you answered that each of these co-operatives is engaged in the business of providing healthy, high quality, organic food to consumers, you would certainly be on the right track. If you responded that each of these co-operative businesses is also committed to its own membership through education, democratic governance, and profit-sharing, you’d be even warmer. But, if you were to take one step even further, and noticed that all of these businesses, and many thousands more across the country, are now formally linked together in a new Co-operative Trade Movement, called Principle Six, your answer would be spot on.
Principle Six is the sixth international principle of co-operatives: co-operation amongst co-operatives. Simply put, it says that co-ops should support each other. They should trade with each other. They should lead with their values. We believe in this principle: so strongly in fact that we’ve decided to start living this principle to the fullest extent possible. Equal Exchange already buys all of our products from small farmer co-operatives. And food co-operatives already sell our products, and many more from their own local networks of ethical producers. But why not take this principle further, as far out there as we possibly can?
Imagine the power behind an entire network of co-ops explicitly leading with their values and unequivocally encouraging their members to do the same: supporting small farmers and producers, local farmers and producers, and co-operative and non-profit businesses!
That’s interesting… Tell us more!
During the month of October, Equal Exchange and six visionary, consumer co-operatives across the country (Bloomingfoods Co-op (Bloomington, Indiana), Brattleboro Food Co-op (Brattleboro, Vermont), The Merc (Lawrence, Kansas), Davis Food Co-op (Davis, California), Equal Exchange (West Bridgewater, Massachusetts), Seward Community Co-op (Minneapolis, Minnesota), and Willy Street Grocery Co-op (Madison, Wisconsin), are launching an exciting, new pilot initiative to rebuild the food system and our local economies in stronger alignment with our co-operative values. We’ve done it before: the organic and natural foods movements were brought to you through the labors of the food co-op movement. Fair Trade was built through the dedication and commitment of farmer co-ops in the Global South and food co-operative members in the North. More recently, food co-ops have championed the Buy Local movement, once again putting concerns for the environment and local economies at the forefront. In fact, throughout the past 40-odd years, care for high quality food, the environment, local community control and democratic participation has run deep in the co-op movement. Yet, for all our hard work and well-placed values, we haven’t had the impact on the food system and the economy that we believe is necessary to provide sustainable livelihoods for small farmers, protect our environment, sustain healthy, vibrant communities, and put consumers in the drivers’ seat where they belong.
Okay, but how are we going to do this?
Today, October 1st, marks the beginning of National Co-op Month. We will begin highlighting and promoting those products which we believe meet our highest values. We’ll also be educating and engaging consumers to think about these products, the companies that make them, and the kind of food system we want and deserve. Through community events, in-store activities, and on our website, www.p6.coop, we’ll inform, promote, debate, challenge ourselves and each other, all the while learning, sharing, having fun (and of course eating and drinking well). Ultimately, we hope to strengthen existing, and build new, co-operative relationships between producers, manufacturers, distributors, retailers, and consumers thereby creating a web of new economic structures and patterns, that add value at every step in the supply chain.
Several months ago, David Korten, author of Agenda for a New Economy, spoke at the Association of Cooperative Educators conference in Cleveland, Ohio. He was criticizing the bankruptcy of our old economic models that have propelled us into the current economic recession. He concluded his talk saying, “it is the relationship between organizations that will create the new economy. Individual co-ops offer society a new model with values and principles but,” he continued, “the real power is when they begin to interlink. When co-ops come together, to support their mutual goals, that’s when we can begin talking about ‘rebuilding the food system’.”
His words actually gave me goose bumps. This is exactly what we’re trying to do and the time couldn’t be any more right. The recent economic, banking, housing, and food crises – to name just a few – point repeatedly to the need for an alternative economic system. What better time than now to rebuild our local economies and food networks and what better way than through a co-operative trade movement?
But don’t take it from us: this vision isn’t ours, alone. Tell us what you think. Go to www.p6.coop and share your opinions. It’s your movement after all.