The Citizen-Consumer Dilemma, Part Two: Reforming the System, Continued

Equal Exchange
March 28, 2017
Background

In Part One of the Citizen-Consumer Dilemma series, we described key problems we need to address, challenge and solve if we want to create a just food system. In Part Two, post one, we dug into the successes and failures of Fair Trade and Certifications as food system reforms. And now, we look to Food Co-ops and Boycotts.

Reform #3: Food Co-ops

By Rink Dickinson, President 

Equal Exchange grew directly from the food co-op movement. The Equal Exchange founders—Michael Rozyne, Jonathan Rosenthal and myself—all worked at the New England food co-op warehouse. This was a secondary, consumer-owned warehouse that was initially collectively run when we began and then had a general manager four years later as we were exiting Northeast Co-ops for the birth of Equal Exchange in the mid-1980s.

By the time we worked at co-ops a great deal of change had already come and gone, and there was weak understanding of what had happened five or 10 years earlier. As we tried to understand mainly by listening to our seniors, and reading the artifacts of the past that were all around us, we were also laying the groundwork for Equal Exchange in response to the successes and failures of the co-op world we were so involved in. 

Since that time, like others who have had formative co-op experiences or lifelong commitments to co-ops, the food co-ops have been core to our understanding of an alternative, not-for-profit food economy. Food for People, Not for Profit. That was the sign that hung on many of the co-ops at that time. Interestingly, there were not nearly enough explorations of what that had meant, could mean, or what the implications of that were. It was sort of a stale statement from the past.

There were massive intertwined, varied, not always positive social movements going on during the birth of the “new wave” of food co-ops. One exploration of this in the book Storefront Revolution by Craig Cox, which gives the history of food co-ops in Minneapolis/St. Paul in the ‘60s. The food co-op movement was a broad, powerful, national movement, or more likely the food part of a complex multi-faceted movement. 

The reform that food co-ops represent is the vital path of creating an alternative to private capital ownership of food. We believe we need a People’s Food System that exists to creatively challenge the corporate system. The food co-ops out there ideally should be part of this system, but would need to change in major ways to be part of a non-corporate food system. 

Perhaps you have an image of what a food co-op in 1985 or 1990 or 1995 looked like. If your image is of stores that were pretty funky and poorly merchandised you are on target. During this time the new wave co-ops began to face economic pressure as capitalist owners and companies entered the market for whole foods, natural foods, local foods, and organic foods. Many co-ops began to face economic hardship and many co-ops began to understand that there was a need to “professionalize.” 

Management structures increasingly emerged. Political analysis which was not in great supply to begin with further diminished. There was often a false choice mentality between being more “professional” versus more “political.” During this time there was a lot of learning about important skills needed to run retail businesses. The consumer co-ops continued to build connections with each other but had very weak connections to other movements. Equal Exchange, as a relatively newish hybrid worker co-op, both had vital individual connections to co-ops across the country but had no structural links with the co-ops. At the same time the once diverse set of co-op distributors dwindled fast as warehouse after warehouse shut down. Ultimately the two largest ones left, Northeast Co-ops and Blooming Prairie, were acquired by UNFI which became the monopoly natural foods distributor for the country. 

The consumer co-ops ignored workers. With a few notable exceptions worker-ownership was not addressed and was, in fact, seen as illegitimate. This became a huge mistake both politically and economically. The co-op’s greatest strength was that it was an experiment or reform in ownership and control. Ownership was seen as “community” and was non-accumulative. Each co-op’s existence was a challenge to private ownership, the single biggest problem of the food system. If that was the case why not share non-accumulative ownership with workers? What was the risk if they too owned half of the “community” enterprise? Wouldn’t that make the model stronger? But instead workers were seen as greedy and in conflict if they had ownership or governance control, while consumers were seen as some sort of evolved, non-partisan angels. 

Consumerism won without a real argument. The co-ops did make great progress in the next period at least economically. The stores that survived the first onslaught of having to be functional stores improved. New stores appeared as did second stores. Co-ops were in the fast-moving river of the growth of natural/clean/organic/and local food. 

In many areas the co-ops did and do exceptional work. Probably local purchasing from committed, vulnerable farms is at the top of this list. In other areas the co-ops looked more and more like their private natural foods competitors: really cool, interesting, expensive, crunchy food spaces.

By understanding both what succeeded and what failed with food co-op reform, we will be better able to apply this learning to other efforts to build future food system reforms.  This learning will directly affect the citizen-consumer work we are now embarked on. With that in mind here is our assessment of the accomplishments and failures of the food co-op reform.

THE ACCOMPLISHMENTS OF THE FOOD CO-OP REFORM

  • Food co-ops are out there on some significant level. Combined national sales are around $2 billion, putting the co-ops at a quarter of a percentage of all retail food sales (0.25%). Although that number is small it does have meaning and leverage. Co-ops continue to exist both as a physical reality and as a model of non-accumulative functioning economics.
  • Survival is a victory. It is not easy to exist in the competitive market space particularly at smaller scale. 
  • On a store-by-store level food co-ops exemplify community and create more space for engagement and social development. Having this space gives us more space to build, learn and dream.
  • Co-ops have been vital as the first market for all kinds of farms, companies, and mission-led or faux mission-led organizations.
  • Co-ops have a special history to be proud of in terms of being the first market for authentic Fair Trade food. Equal Exchange’s success and the success of Fair Trade in the U.S. is very much built on the strong, principled, and economically vital support co-ops gave to Fair Trade coffee, chocolate and bananas.
  • In some states (MN, WI, VT, WA) co-ops have gotten to the next level and have the capacity for further innovation and social influence.

THE FAILURES OF THE FOOD CO-OP REFORM

  • There has been little political capacity, vision and courage from our consumer co-ops. The key reform of the co-ops is creating functioning non-accumulating enterprises. This asset is at best weakly developed.
  • Workers have been left out of the model. There is no reason for this other than lack of vision and courage. Without changing this co-ops will be still trying to organize people from the perspective that was both wrong 40 years ago and completely out of touch with today’s needs.
  • Food co-op members (citizen-consumers) have not been adequately engaged. It is very hard to stay functional running a store and be a completely different type of organization but that is exactly what needs to happen. On a store-by-store level this happens but even that success is insufficient in the current competitive market. It is now vital for the next 15 years both on a store level and on a broader level to actually leverage the asset of democratic ownership/involvement/control.
  • Because of not understanding what is needed as non-capitalist actors in the market, the co-ops have generally been the first market for faux mission-led companies. They have not leveraged toward a cooperative economy but themselves been leveraged to make their enemies stronger and themselves weaker. They have been chumped.

Co-ops also gave away their advantage in Fair Trade. The ultimate irony was Whole Foods, who was in principle and practice opposed to Fair Trade, when they finally changed positions in 2007 and became the leader in Fair Trade with their Whole Trade program. Co-ops on a national level did not utter a word or champion their formative support for Fair Trade. At the same time as certification battles waged and  the corporate takeover of Fair Trade spread, co-ops again as an entity did nothing to support small farmers or alternative trade organizations, and as importantly did nothing to punish weak Fair Trade standards, fair washing, and impostor brands.

Reform #4: Boycotts

We chatted with Equal Exchange Co-Executive Director Rob Everts to learn about his boycotting and organizing past, as well as to think about the role of this type of action today. How do we organize as consumers to create a meaningful movement? Watch the video here: 

Stay tuned as we continue this blog series. 

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