Co-ops

Know Your Food, Know Your Food Producer

Small Farmers, Equal Exchange, and you: The Action Forum

What I learned at the People’s Food System Summit, June 2017, hosted by the Equal Exchange Action Forum.

  • Meeting a food producer improves your life.
  • Countries producing your food are REALLY suffering from global warming.
  • Tea production is brutal for people that pick leaves by hand.
  • Bananas require incredible logistics to reach you.
  • Cheap bananas serve the powerful.
  • Democracy is work.
  • Voting is work.
  • You should join the Action Forum: equalexchange.coop/action-forum
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Marketing the movement

Howard Brodsky presents at the International Summit of Cooperatives

Howard Brodsky presents at the International Summit of Cooperatives

The movement is massive. And it can save the world. It’s the co-op movement worldwide. Co-ops as a solution to the world’s problems was a predominant theme at this year’s International Summit of Cooperatives hosted by ICA and DesJardins October 11-13 in Quebec City. At the event economists Joseph Stiglitz, Jeremy Rifkin and Robert Reich all touted the critical role for co-ops.

But it’s time to make a broader audience see the light. Cooperatives have a strange identity crisis right now and can be viewed in the mainstream as not viable and/or not modern — an issue also agreed on at the conference. As Robert Reich said at a presentation on October 12, we have to raise the co-op voice. Vic Van Vuuren, from the International Labor Organization, said in an October 13 session, we must externalize the value proposition of co-ops consisting of the triple bottom line: economic, social, and environment. Nicole Alix, President of La Coop des Communs in France said let’s reach out to activists. And Charles Gould, Director-General, in charge of the e, International Co-operative Alliance in Belgium, mentioned the irony of large and influential co-ops — in many cases, co-ops with thousands of members — being unknown to the general public as cooperative organizations.

The need for promoting co-ops you’ve likely heard before. But at this summit about increasing our capacity to act, Howard Brodsky, CEO, Chairman and Co-Founder of CCA Global Partners showed how he is doing it. He’s created a promotional campaign at cooperativesforabetterworld.coop. What Brodsky described in a session titled “Making Cooperatives the Way of the Future” was the need to tell stories. Stories are how people remember things. If we want people to understand and remember the co-ops that exist around them and what they have to offer, then we must tell their stories.

His approach is to answer the why of co-ops, and he’s created multiple videos that answer this question. He showed two well-produced videos at the summit that shed light on what co-ops have to offer in brief but effective messaging. Telling why co-ops are a solution will be slightly different depending on the co-op sector. But he says that each sector needs to tell their stories.

This marketing effort is a bridge for educating the general public on the value and benefits of co-ops. Coopertivesforabetterworld.coop is a resource with videos, sector descriptions, and blogs. Under the link “explore,” there is a video that describes a co-op. Another link divides co-ops into nine sectors.

Let’s brand co-ops as a mainstream business solution. Howard Brodsky is showing the way.

Some videos promoting co-ops I produced can be viewed at Kingbird Content. One video explains co-ops in 60 seconds.

Food for (Economic) Thought

Equal Exchange bananas on display challenging the mighty Chiquita brand

Equal Exchange bananas on display challenging the mighty Chiquita brand

My September brightened like tropical sunshine when I found Equal Exchange bananas at Stop & Shop in Norwood, Massachusetts. There they were, occupying display space beside the ever present Chiquitas. The Massachusetts-based co-op, Equal Exchange, continues to advance fair trade food production internationally. It’s great to see evidence of it at a major grocer.

Fair trade products and a broader food movement taking place are not only improving how we eat, they’re increasing political and economic freedom. This month, a thought-provoking article on CounterPunch by Jonathan Latham recounts a worldwide food movement in an article titled, Food Liberation: Why The Food Movement Is Unstoppable. The article describes food as a basis for economic thought. As the co-op movement brings to light, there are alternative ways to consider business interaction besides competition. The food movement brings with it a “philosophical shift” challenging food as a commodity and business. Food as an industry, descendant from western enlightenment thinkers, has become disconnected from natural interconnection.

“Enlightenment thinkers laid the groundwork for a meritocratic and commercial society to replace feudalism and their ideas justified the necessary concepts that the founders of the new society came to rely on: mechanization, individualism and competition. Nowadays, their ideas are used for preserving this order, even as the intellectual flaws of that understanding are increasingly manifesting as ecological crises, not least in the form of global climate change — a crisis that the food movement could play a critical role in addressing.”

The food movement has lessons for us all:

“Food philosophy thus replaces the neo-Darwinist narrative of life-as-competition with the idea that life thrives in the presence of other life. There is perfectly good evidence for this — we know, for example, that the tens of millions of species on Earth are interdependent.”

In Brazil a food movement is benefiting millions of children and small farmers with a top-down approach. Thomson Reuters Foundation reports on the world’s largest universal feeding project. A law dictates that 30% of school meal budgets must go to small farmers. Farmers and co-ops are benefiting: the predictable income allows them to obtain deeded land rights and reinvest in the land.

Equal Exchange buys from co-op farmers around the world. They buy cashews from Tomy Mathew from the southern India state of Kerala. At an August event, he explained how fair trade has created a market in that region allowing a higher standard of living, including good wages. Equal Exchange is now looking to connect farmers and citizen-consumers with an initiative called the Action Forum. As Equal Exchange says: small farmers, big change.

A Reformer’s Legacy

Portrait of Robert Owen

Robert Owen by William Henry Brooke [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Bernie Sanders officially dismantled a social reform movement last week at the Democratic National Convention. But there’s another guy who made history with social reform by changing the very system that made him successful. A predecessor to socialism, his name has come up in the news lately: Robert Owen from Wales who lived from 1771 to 1858. He was a capitalist yet espoused reformist ideas that later empowered cooperatives in Britain and beyond. The Co-operative News recently reported that a collection of his letters are being archived. Owen was a pioneer who inspired cooperative development, and advanced progressive industrial practices.

He left school at age 10, then went on to succeed in manufacturing including owning a mill in Scotland. As an industrial leader Owen may not be akin to the consolidated 1% of wealth today but certainly held significant influence and power. And he had a moral agenda. He called for social reform even leading to the evolution of unionizing workers. His ideals for the well-being of workers and children were put into effect at his mill, New Lanark. He also aspired to act even more broadly to educate the young and made an effort to create a utopian society. These ideas eventually provided a foundation for the cooperative movement.

A collection of Owen letters is being archived at the  UK Memory of the World Register.
Also archived there is the Magna Carta written about in a previous blog post: The Magna Carta and Co-ops.  The archive is part of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

Here in the US in 2016, I’m thankful for Robert Owen’s progressive agenda still felt today. During this election year I see the same social problems festering that Owen fought: a lack of viable education and workers rights for the disenfranchised, especially with Bernie stepping down. I wish I could say Bernie is a reformist. Robert Owen clearly was. His top-down approach doesn’t seem likely to happen, but we can have faith that there is at least some historical precedence for it.

Using a Cooperative Digital Platform

From the home page of Loomio.org

An image from the home page of Loomio.org

My excitement grows for cooperative platforms on the web. They can bring actual democracy and equality to the web by establishing diverse stakeholders as owners. And the movement is growing (See my earlier blog post: Platforms for a New Economy.) But we’re all wondering how they will be built, and be influential. We can start by looking at Loomio as a successful example. It’s a worker-owned web application that brings to us a networking and decision-making platform.

I used Loomio for a recent political campaign. Our team was a group of 18. The best feature for us was preserving conversation threads. We were able to refer to past conversations saved in one central location. The collection of threads that accumulated was ideal for including newcomers in a particular discussion. Some exclusive conversations did need to take place by email instead of Loomio, but in Loomio anyone could start a new thread with a title and description. And the responses to a thread can be sent to your email address.

The decision-making aspect of the platform, consisting of proposals and voting, was useful. The few times we used this feature, the interface was clear and effective. You can start a proposal at any time, and a graphic pie chart tracks the popularity of the proposal. I see a lot of potential for this feature, and think it could be a great municipal voting tool.

Beyond our use of Loomio, the New Zealand based co-op is successfully deploying the platform globally. A recent Yes magazine article written by Nathan Schneider describes how they obtained unique financing while retaining the social mission. They used redeemable preference shares with investors that keeps bottom-line decision-making with the cooperative. My brief research to understand redeemable preference shares brought me to the Wikipedia page: hybrid security which may or may not clarify them for you.

Loomio is a practical tool, and a co-op. With the advancement of UX in user-friendly platforms such as this, we can start to use and appreciate real democratically-owned services on the web.

Connecting co-ops in North America

As a network of co-ops builds in the US, redefining economics is resulting as well—a topic I’ve mentioned in several previous blog entries. There’s a mandate to develop an economy that includes solidarity. Other terms on the topic are: a sharing economy (which is defined differently depending on who you ask), or a generative economy. Efforts around the country are piecing together inchoate ideas for now, but show great thinking and promise.

In April, RIPESS North America (Intercontinental Network for the Promotion of the Social Solidarity Economy-N. America) initiated a forum in Detroit to discuss solidarity in economics. The efforts to develop this forum exemplifies the solidarity of organizations to address progressive economics. RIPESS North America joined with the U.S. Solidarity Economy Network (SEN), the Canadian Community Economic Development Network (CCEDNET) and the Chantier de l’économie Sociale in Quebec to create the forum. RIPESS-NA formed a Coordinating Committee that also includes the Democracy Collaborative, the New Economy Coalition, the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung and Detroit organizations, including: the James and Grace Lee Boggs Center to Nurture Community Leadership, the Center for Community Based Enterprise (C2BE), the East Michigan Environmental Action Council (EMEAC), and the Conscious Community Cooperative. It’s a mouthful, I know!

Beyond the forum, one visual approach is to map the solidarity economy. At their site US Solidarity, an interactive map shows “individual solidarity economy practices and the solidarity economy as a whole. This has benefits for participants, publics, and policymakers alike. Particular emphasis is placed on the cooperative and community-centered nature of the economic activity.”

In Massachusetts, The Greater Boston Chamber of Cooperatives has formed with the mission “dedicated to strengthening and expanding the greater Boston cooperative economy through education, advocacy, and collaboration among its member organizations. Through shared resources and cross-sector collective action, we are working to build a more just, democratic, and sustainable economy.”

With so many groups involved, these perspectives on economics can appear overwhelming. But the work of small efforts can combine and form larger impact together—in solidarity. The results won’t necessarily translate to an overarching economic policy that we’re used to. These many groups working together demonstrate that small can be a solution because they bring diverse thought, different answers for different people. I like to quote the great E. F. Schumacher and say that in regards to economics, “small is beautiful.” But uniting is the current challenge for solidarity economics and cooperatives.

 

Sustainable Energy and Co-ops

image

Image from the NCREA “Co-op 101” two-page graphic.

There are 3000+ energy co-ops in the US and Europe. In both parts of the world co-ops are addressing the renewable energy challenge. In the US, some energy co-ops known as electric co-ops, are working toward 100% renewable energy use and analyzing the realities of getting there. Energy co-ops exist across Western Europe using exclusively renewable energy.

In the US, more than 900 consumer-owned electric co-ops are represented by The National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA) in Arlington, VA. US electric cooperatives are in 47 states.

According to NRECA, US electric cooperatives are governed by consumer-members and are not-for-profit businesses. Consumer-members vote for board members, “and the co-op must, with few exceptions, return to consumer-members revenue above what is needed for operation. Under this structure, electric co-ops provide economic benefits to their local communities rather than distant stockholders.”

The NRECA publication, Rural Energy (RE) Magazine, reported in the article “Co-ops Considering a 100% Renewable Energy Portfolio,” that two energy co-ops in Vermont and Texas are confronting the challenges of reaching 100% renewable energy use. The Pedernales Electric Cooperative in Austin is facing the lack of suitable sites for solar arrays that are near the areas of demand. A major challenge for the Vermont Electric Cooperative is the capital needed, $15 billion, for a solar and battery system.

In Western Europe, co-ops are an opportunity for consumers to control their use of renewable energy. They are called REScoops. Their website REScoop.eu says “REScoop is short for renewable energy cooperative, and refers to a business model where citizens jointly own and participate in renewable energy or energy efficient projects.”

According to REScoop.eu there are at least 2,397 European REScoops, mostly in Western Europe. This federation of co-ops “supports the energy transition to a decentralised, renewable, efficient and sustainable energy system with citizens at its core. We refer to it as the energy transition to energy democracy. We believe that REScoops are the most appropriate business model to keep this transition fair and affordable for citizens.”

REScoop.eu describes REScoops as small and large. Ecopower in Belgium, for example,  has “almost 50,000 members, and owns 17 wind turbines, 3 hydro power installations, 320 solar panels and 1 cogeneration installation using rape seed oil.”

The move toward 100% renewable worldwide energy use is possible according to the study, Energy [R]evolution report, published by Greenpeace last year. It offers a vision of 100%  renewable energy use worldwide by 2050. Co-ops, with the democratic influence of consumer-members are one path to get there.

Co-ops and the Law

The Harvard Law School has provided community access to legal services with the Transactional Law Clinics (TLC) since 1979. TLC includes the Community Enterprise Project (CEP) in Boston’s Jamaica Plain. These organizations have put out the legal guide “Tackling the Law, Together” in a PDF that describes legal issues and opportunities for co-ops. This means legal structure! tax law! employment law! Yes, it is exciting stuff;  developing legal strategies essential for co-ops. Although Harvard and the clinics are Massachusetts-based, the report addresses US law generally as much as possible. It was published in coordination with The Boston Center for Community ownership, The Boston Impact Initiative, the California-based Sustainable Economies Law Center.

Legal structure is the first building block of a formal co-op and there are some to choose from: corporation, benefit corporation (different from the “b-corp” designation), cooperative corporation, and LLC (limited Liability company). Non-profit status is considered not applicable to co-ops that generate profits for owners. Then, did you know, that separate from your legal structure, you can be taxed as something else? And the Subchapter T of the Internal Revenue Code (IRC) can be especially advantageous.

“It is important to keep in mind that the legal structure of a business is distinct from its tax structure. For example, a corporation does not have to be taxed under Subchapter C of the IRC (Internal Revenue Code); instead, it can choose to be taxed much like a partnership if it elects to be taxed under Subchapter S. Similarly, an LLC can elect to be taxed as a partnership (under Subchapter K), as a C-corporation (under Subchapter C), or as a cooperative corporation (under Subchapter T).”

See the report for more on tax law, immigration law, co-op conversions, and more. It’s a 47-page overview and “does not constitute legal advice” – like this blog post.

Laura Flanders is taking notice, too, of cooperative law. She recently interviewed Janelle Orsi from Sustainable Economies Law Center (SELC) on the subject. Also interviewed was Micky Metts from the Agaric cooperative. So, check out the report from CEP and the Laura Flanders interview.

Defining the Sharing Economy

Defining the sharing economy continues. An inspiring event took place at the Goethe Institut in New York, January 21st. In previous entries I wrote about Platform Cooperativism, that took place in November. This was a follow-up event with a gifted panel of experts questioning the current “sharing economy” and what it could be.

Artwork for Platform Cooperativism a movement developed by Trebor Scholz with events at The New School and Goethe-Institut, New York

Artwork for Platform Cooperativism a concept penned by Trebor Scholz including events at The New School and the Goethe-Institut, New York

Panelist Trebor Scholz who coined the term Platform Cooperativism has again convened thinkers and solutions that spread wealth and  ownership to workers. Following the November event Trebor wrote an educational and inspiring report, Platform Cooperativism, published by the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation. It describes the reality of the “on-demand economy” we have today, often described as a sharing economy, where “companies like Amazon, CrowdSpring, and Taskrabbit” are creating more damage to society and workers than their supposed innovation. The result is “Platform capitalism” coined by Sasha Lobo and Martin Kenney. Scholz writes: “platform capitalism, so far, has been highly ineffective in addressing the needs of the commonwealth. What initially looked like innovation, eventually cranked up the volume on income inequality.” Uber and CrowdFlower are other examples.

The solution is building equality into alternate platforms that serve similar functions. Trebor wants to make clear that it’s being done. Blockchain technology was discussed at length in the November conference as one approach. Trebor writes: “Convincing tools based on blockchain technology have emerged over the past few years. Loomio, Backfeed, D-CENT, and Consensys.”

Other panelists at the Goethe-Instiut were Brendan Martin, Felix Weth, Chelsea Rustrum, and Emma Yorra.

Brendan Martin, founder of Working World gave some great perspective on what we’re confronting with ownership in today’s sharing conversation. Class warfare has repeated itself, and we are facing an age-old problem, he said. This puts discussions of ownership into perspective. Common grain storage in ancient times, for example, may have been stored for the common good, however, eventually ownership consolidates to fewer and fewer owners. Then the disadvantaged seek ownership again from the wealthy few, and the process repeats itself. This cyclical pattern reminds me of Saul Alinsky’s observation in his book Rules for Radicals where those that lack power may eventually get it, then conversely fight to keep it. This yin yang pattern in both ownership and power should be kept in mind.

Panelist Felix Weth is the founder of Fairmondo, mentioned in my last post. The German-based co-op  is spreading into the UK. Hopefully there will be expansion into the US.

Chelsea Rustrum had a great message that sharing can actually be an advantage. She is a co-author of It’s a Sharable Life. In an earlier blog post I show that co-ops can outperform traditional capitalistic business models. Sharing of wealth at co-ops could exemplify this kind of advantage. At the Platform Cooperativism conference the term stigmergy was presented as a model studied by Joel Deitz and others. If groups have superior ways of coordinating then competitive advantage could result.

Panelist Emma Yorra has an impressive resume working with co-ops in New York and Working World in Nicuaruagua. She also mentioned collaboration with the oft mentioned financial co-op in platform cooperativism: Robin hood.

Sharing is a topic I believe all businesses should take seriously for practical reasons. I write this blog because co-ops share ownership, wealth, responsibility, and advantage. Cooperative platforms are no different.

Cooperative Economics

I think about economics a lot lately thanks to the Platform Cooperativism conference at the New School in New York. This is my second blog post about the cooperative topics discussed that ultimately address for me the all-important topic of wealth distribution. Prosperity can spread by borrowing the best qualities of today’s businesses and then structuring them democratically. Some innovative cooperative platforms already exist; capitalism can be modified as we can potentially teach corporations new and valuable forms of transaction; and government can help, too.

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Platforms for a New Economy

I was lucky to attend the Platform Cooperativism conference on November 13 and 14 at The New School in New York City. It was convened by Trebor Scholz from The New School and Nathan Schneider from the University of Colorado. The event focused on existing cooperative platforms, such as co-ops, web apps, peer to peer engagement, and considered what can be built in the future. In this blog post I wanted to mention some general themes that struck me at the conference.
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Civil Rights, A River, and Co-ops

I’m not one to write about spirituality, and wouldn’t deem it appropriate for this blog, but a series of events happened a few days ago related to co-ops that I can’t help but describe as Carl Jung’s concept of sychronicity — a “meaningful coincidence.” Lately I’ve been reading Jessica Gordon Nembhard’s Collective Courage on the history of African American co-ops, in which the great sociologist and proponent of co-ops W.E.B. Du Bois is featured. His research is essential documentation of the Black struggle and cooperative development in the late 1800s to the 1950s. With this information in my head, my wife and I were choosing a place in New England to hike and stay overnight.

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American Worker-Owned Co-ops = Good Business

The Democracy at Work Institute, a sister organization of US Federation of Worker Cooperatives (USFWC), released a report this year called US Worker Cooperatives: State of the Sector that gives an overview of US worker-owned co-ops. The report observes that much has been said about worker co-ops internationally, but that US worker co-ops as a whole have lacked analysis. The report tallies 256 worker co-ops in the US. A small number, likely an underestimate due to lack of data, but the report concludes US worker co-ops — known for delivering social, democratic, and community benefits — deliver impressive profits and growth.

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MGAWOC: Make Google a Worker-Owned Co-operative

What is more ubiquitous than Google? Because of this, I declare today the first day of MGAWOC: Make Google a Worker-owned Co-operative. Below are 10 co-operative initiatives to inspire a Google worker-owned co-operative. And they happen to be Google’s company philosophy (slightly modified here). Google lists them at What We Believe.

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A Co-op Meetup in Cambridge, MA

On February 8th, The Agaric co-operative held a Meetup event in Cambridge, MA, at their workspace Industry Lab. Despite snowfall that was part of an unprecedented series of storms, people attended to discuss the status and value of co-ops. I brought along a video camera and captured some testimonies from attendees. Micky Metts and Ben Melançon represented Agaric. They see the co-operative movement as a vital source of autonomy as do others that were interviewed. See the linked 3:34 minute video for some thoughts on the co-op movement and some solutions it offers. (more…)

Tiddler’s Success

What’s a tiddler? I had to look it up. It’s a very small fish or, in the case of an article I recently read in The Economist, it’s the “little guy”. The little guy is thriving in, of all places, a segment of the investment banking industry. The Economist reported in the December 6-12 issue that small investment banks are now taking away merger and acquisition (M&A) business from large financial institutions. (more…)

Janelle Orsi and the Sharing Economy

If you’re trying to determine what the new economy means, author and attorney Janelle Orsi can do a lot to help. In her book Practicing Law in the Sharing Economy, Orsi gives compelling insight into the practical application of law to solve, or attempt to solve, the challenges of a new way to function economically. I’m inspired by this approach that Orsi puts on the shoulders of transactional law. Human interaction is the point at which Orsi sets her sights. (more…)

John Abrams and Business Cooperation

In 2008, Chelsea Green Press published Companies We Keep by John Abrams. It is the second addition of The Company We Keep first published in 2005. Companies We Keep isn’t a new book, but I found it well worth reading in 2014 not only for its insight into the development and philosophy of the author’s worker-owned business, but for a systemic rethinking of business in general. (more…)