This a continuation of thoughts inspired by Michael Shuman's book called 'Local Dollars, Local Sense-  How to Shift Your Money from Wall Street to Main Street and Achieve Real Prosperity' which was published by Chelsea Green in 2012, as well as many tangents and conversations about natural building, community living, bioregionalism, social justice, local economics and ethical investments.

"A growing number of people are recognizing that in order to secure the clean air, water and food that we need to healthfully survive, we have to become guardians of the places where we live.  People sense the loss in not knowing our neighbours and natural surroundings, and are discovering the best way to take care of ourselves and to get to know our neighbours, is to protect and restore our region."- Proceedings of the North American Bioregional Congress, in The New Catalyst vol 1, no 2, Jan/Feb 1986

What is a Co-op?

There are many forms of co-operatives from housing co-operatives, to child care co-ops, insurance co-ops, credit unions, food co-ops, workers co-operative, etc. Co-ops can be built around consumers, producing members, workers, land owners or other types of groupings.  Co-ops have a list of shared values and guidelines based on these values, in addition to their raison d'être.

"Co-operatives are based on the values of self-help, self-responsibility, democracy, equality, equity and solidarity. In the tradition of their founders, co-operative members believe in the ethical values of honesty, openness, social responsibility and caring for others."  International Co-operative Alliance

Whitewater Canyon near Rettalack, BC- Excellent grizzly bear habitat

Why the legal structure of a co-op instead of other options?
  • co-operatives are democratic and are based on the principle of one person, one vote instead of one dollar one vote
  • co-ops are scalable and can be found with very small membership to very large businesses.
  • co-ops can often take on economic activities that private business can't or won't take on, especially in rural areas with sparse populations.
  • consumer co-ops aim to maximize consumer experience. Consumers can buy high quality products at reasonable prices
  • workers co-ops ensure that business decisions are made that are supported by the workers.
  • co-ops can help small local businesses achieve economies of scale by working together.  This is common in food production, so that processing, storage or distribution of food can be done at a larger scale than each individual farmer trying to do it for themselves.

Whitewater Mountain, BC


Co-operatives as an investment

In a previous blog post called Making the Case for Local Economies, I talked about how supporting local businesses helps sustainable community development.  Investing or joining a co-op can be part of your strategy for supporting your local community as well as investing your money (most co-ops are local since their members are situated in a particular geographic area).   Shuman explains that "If you become a member of dozens of co-ops, covering each of your basic needs like banking, insurance, energy, food and health care, your capital investment may add up to several thousand dollars.  Usually when members leave a cooperative, they can get back their member capital.  If that $100 invested in a the co-op allows a member to enjoy $10 of discounts or patronage benefits each year, the rate of return is 10 percent-more than double what a typical stock fund will deliver." (pg 51 Local Dollars, Local Sense)  What local co-ops are you a member of already?  Are there any others in you community that would support your life?  

Plaid Lake, near Crawford Bay, BC

Co-ops as a way to leverage capital and as Community Development

Getting loans for small business can be difficult at times.  Co-ops can solicit loans from their members to get investments for new projects.  This can be beneficial to the co-op as well as members who are investing.  The Kootenay Co-op has used this strategy to help fund an expansion in Nelson, BC.  In fact, the Kootenay Co-op is one of those great examples of how co-ops can grow and influence local development.  Instead of having large corporations deciding on the future of community development, locally owned co-operatives can develop the community in the way that community members want.

This is where we flip the problem on its head and introduce the idea of Something Wonderful in my Backyard (SWIMBY) instead of Not in my Backyard (NIMBY). The Transition Network has re-framed community development as SWIMBY, to try to get people involved in taking a proactive role in community development, as well as putting a stop to destructive development that externalizes community needs and environment for money.   I know that SWIMBY is just a turn of phrase, but it gives you the opportunity to stop and think about who should really be developing in the places that we live.  Grassroots initiatives, for the people, by the people, where we care about the people and the place where we live is how a community should really operate.

Co-ops provide services or benefits that are otherwise inaccessible to communities

Another example of a co-op influencing the future of communities is Co-op Power, which is a locally owned power cooperative that aims to bring sustainable power sources to several states in the NE of the US. This is a way that members can get green products or services that aren't already being provided by mainstream businesses, or are too capital intensive for small local businesses to start.

Co-ops to provide loans to other businesses

La Montanita is a food co-op in New Mexico which has created a micro-lending fund  to help support small local food producers and other cooperatives in New Mexico to get small loans. La Monitata describes their fund here: "The LaM FUND also provides the opportunity for farmers, ranchers, value-added producers, other food system projects, and cooperative businesses that might not be eligible for conventional loans to get small scale projects financed at an affordable rate."  In helping the producers and businesses of the local food-shed, they are also helping the co-op to access higher quality products, more diversity or offer local foods to more co-op locations.  In addition, it provides co-op members with the opportunity to invest their money locally, instead of on the stock market in big corporations.

Workers cooperatives

One of the most famous and workers co-operatives is Mondragon, which was started in Northern Spain, but now has co-ops all over the world.  Mondragon has 260 businesses and co-operatives, and 74,117 employees.  Like I said in the introduction, co-ops are scalable, and can be big business.  What is so interesting about Mondragon is that in Spain where unemployment is high and the economy is having a difficult time, the fact that Mondragon operates as a workers co-ops creates a way for the business and the employees both to get past tough times.  Workers have a say in the management in the company, and profit and wages are shared, the company operates democratically.  For more of Mondragon's principles, or for quick intro into workers cooperatives watch the trailer of Shift Change.   Another way that Mondragon has been able to weather economic changes is that it is a collection of businesses and co-ops, so if one business/co-op is suffering, it can borrow workers or money from another business and not have to go through banks, which often lack good rates and liquidity in times of crisis.  Mondragon is not without it's critics, but it has definitely had a positive effect on community development and social responsibility in several areas in Spain.  You can also watch this video from Democracy Now for a 35min interview about Mondragon.

Land co-ops

 Land access is a big topic, and definitely not a new one.  There have been years and years and years of lords and peasant serfs, conquistadors and aboriginal tribes, government decrees and people working the land, foresters and hunter/gatherer tribes....  In Canada, individual land ownership, with families existing separate from each other is more the norm.  The trouble with this model is that land and house ownership is expensive, and most adults spend a large portion of their lives trying to pay off the debt they have incurred by buying a house/land.  In addition to the cost of owning land, there is the larger impact of  how each individual uses or stewards the land, how they build their houses, with what materials, how they use water, what they do to the soil, forests, how they get to and from their houses/land, that create larger patterns around ability to provide sustainable livelihoods, environmental footprint, consumption, distribution of resources.  The way we live in individual households also impacts how we take care of each other (or don't in many cases).  The idea of 'it takes a village to raise a child', no longer applies in much of our society, so when someone gets sick, or you need child care, you need someone to garden for you or take care of your cat, the community networks are more difficult to build.

The Craigs- Kootenay Pass, BC

"Land is—or should be—invaluable, perhaps even sacred. It is not only a place to live, but also a source for food, for water, for fuel, and for sustenance of almost every kind. Land management choices have profound impacts on our ecosystems and environment, and thus on our health, well-being and collective future." Shaun Chamberlin

There are alternative models for landownership or communal living that have been developed.  These models don't suit everyone, but neither does individual land ownership.  To have options out there is important.  Shaun Chamberlin wrote and excellent article about land ownership and an ecological land co-op in the UK.

The idea behind land co-ops is that land is owned cooperatively, and the people living on the land are stewards of the land.  Financing for land co-ops can occur in different ways, but in the Ecological Land Co-op they have different options of how people can contribute financial to the co-op.

Apricot Blossoms, Food Forest, Creston, BC

In addition to land co-ops there are also many other types of communal living situations that suit people from communes, eco-villages, co-housing, intentional communities, religious communities.  Each have different ways to answer the questions:  How de we collaborate?  How do we contribute? 
The answers to these questions will create radically different communities depending on who comes to the table, the regulatory environment, the intention and the resources available.  The models and options that are being tried out in the world are diverse, challenging, inspirational and beautiful.

There are some responses that are in between the individual housing and communal living aspect.  Tiny houses or the small house movement has become more popular these days as a way to lower the barrier to owning a house/land and living a lower carbon, lower debt, lower footprint, more vibrant life.

  "It’s not a movement about people claiming to be ‘tinier than thou’ but rather people making their own choices toward simpler and smaller living however they feel best fits their life"- Jay Shafer

Tiny House at the Lost Valley Eco-village, Oregon

Small Housing BC has recently put out a report called Innovations in Small-Scale Living in North America, which goes through examples of small scale living that straddle the line between individual and communal housing options.  I also think tiny houses have alot of opportunities but just like any living situation, Hipstercrite highlights some struggles you might face when living small in her hilarious article entitled Dear People Who Live in Fancy Tiny Houses.  In any case, land-ownership can still be an issue with any of these small housing initiatives and land co-ops may be one solution the the problem of land access.

Haskap, Lonicera caerulea, in bloom

So there you have it... Co-ops as  investments, as community development, as providing services that are otherwise inaccessible to communities, co-ops as community lenders, as workers co-ops and land co-ops.  Co-ops can have many different reasons for existing and impacts within our lives.  Co-ops are definitely not the only way to have a business or organize a group, but they are an interesting model that can create big changes within a community.

Whatever you are interested in... make sure you are creating Something Wonderful in My Backyard!


Popular Posts