Think Virtual, Act Real

Redwood forests and food cooperatives: Near the westernmost point of California, these two seemingly unrelated systems impressed me in parallel ways while attending the Consumer Cooperative Management Association (CCMA) conference. Both have generated thriving, complex responses to resource-rich environments. Both are threatened by rapid changes in that environment.

Under the theme, "Think Virtual, Act Real," over three hundred cooperative managers, directors, trainers and others met June 6-8 at the 46th annual CCMA gathering, this year in Eureka and hosted by North Coast Cooperative. CCMA is sponsored by the National Cooperative Business Association and organized by Ann Hoyt and assistants at the UW-Madison Urban Cooperative Initiative. It is an intense mix of presenters, training, networking, and social events. Veterans and newcomers from across the continent make it a unique hotbed of discussion and direction setting. Consequently, reporting on CCMA (a virtual association with real impact) provides a good opportunity to survey the food co-op movement and its larger market and its global environment.

Award Winners

Congratulations to the following for awards of recognition given at the 2002 session of the Consumer Cooperative Management Association:

Cooperative Service

Bob Davis, manager of Greenbelt Consumer Cooperative in Greenbelt, Maryland, who has contributed invaluable leadership at that co-op and in the Mid-Atlantic region through longstanding work on behalf of credit unions and other cooperatives.

Cooperative Service

Bill Gessner, a consultant with Cooperative Development Services, who began in retail and wholesale co-ops in North Dakota and Minnesota and in recent years has provided expert, patient, and joyful advice in working with scores of co-ops across the U.S. and Canada.

Cooperative Innovation and Achievement

Corinne Shindelar, executive director of Twin Cities Natural Food Co-ops and Cooperative Grocers Association--Midwest, who led these retailers in launching the Co-op Advantage Program, then helped make possible its expansion to other regions and a dynamic national collaboration.

Cooperative Milestones

Founded in 1977 (25 years):

  • Cooperative Market, Akron OH
  • East End Food Co-op, Pittsburgh PA
  • Oceana Natural Foods Co-op, Newport OR
  • Olympia Food Co-op, Olympia WA

Founded in 1972 (30 years):

  • Ashland Community Foods, Ashland OR
  • Bluff Country Co-op, Winona MN
  • Cass Corridor, Detroit MI
  • Davis Food Co-op, Davis CA
  • Food Front, Portland OR
  • Good Foods Co-op, Lexington KY
  • Grain Train Food Co-op, Petosky MI
  • Lexington Real Food Co-op, Buffalo NY
  • Onion River Food Co-op, Burlington VT
  • Ozark Natural Fods Co-op, Fayetteville AR
  • Port Townsend Food Co-op, Port Townsend WA
  • Seward Co-op Grocery & Deli, Minneapolis MN
  • Stevens Point Co-op, Stevens Point WI

Founded in 1937 (65 years):

Westminster Consumers Co-op, Westminster MD

Founded in 1932 (70 years):

Hyde Park Co-op Society, Chicago IL

Keynote speakers Harvey Hartmann and Francis Moore Lappé contributed significantly to the conference discussions. Hartmann, a consultant in the natural health field who has worked with the National Cooperative Grocers Association, highlighted key issues around co-ops' market position in the face of changing consumer trends. Grocery retailing is a field of increasing competition and decreasing margins -- yet most customers who patronize natural/organic stores are looking not for low prices or simply products but for an experience authentically reflecting certain values.

The desired values are ones such as community, trust, sustainable production, and local ownership. Authenticity -- gained by actually manifesting those values -- describes co-ops better than it does their private competitors. Cooperatives should build on this consumer recognition and opportunity. They need to articulate more strongly the programs and ownership structure which embody those shared values and which provide customers and owners an arena where they can readily and deeply experience those values.

Lappé, in contrast, spoke to an even broader vision, one of a global drive for sustainability, democracy, and hope. After her groundbreaking earlier writings and co-founding Food First, she has most recently co-authored with her daughter Anna the book Hope's Edge: The New Diet for a Small Planet (Tarcher Putnam 2002). Hope's Edge is a mix of ideas, reports on popular struggles around the world, and even recipes, all evoking a theme of sustainability. Her CCMA presentation, echoing the book, emphasized building organizations and communities based on trust rather than fear. She attempted to illustrate paths toward popular empowerment in a world dominated by institutional powers that are undemocratic, violent, and unsustainable.

Of course, much of the conference program focused not on these large notions but on practice: the demands on directors and managers to improve their cooperatives and to meet their leadership responsibilities. Topics covered a broad range: planning store improvement, designing member equity and benefits, applying marketing concepts, handling organizational conflict, managing data, monitoring performance, building community foundations, and more. Yet all these discussions were linked to the larger themes mentioned above and reflected the challenge to "think virtual, act real."

Far from being abstractions of limited relevance, building community through practice of fundamental values such as democracy, service, trust, and hope, along with solidifying our common standards and structures, really are the only manner in which our cooperatives are likely to survive. Moving groceries and providing other services to our members is the entry point to fulfilling those larger ends of building community and cooperative ownership. Our challenge, if we are to continue in this direction, is for food co-ops to make real their virtual chain of stores across the country.

A session on futures for the U.S. food co-op movement was held during the concluding portion of the program. The panelists and other participants, while hardly of one mind on strategy, were passionate in their desire to continue building stronger ties among co-ops, and they shared an urgent resolve to address an increasingly threatening environment.

If food co-ops do not achieve greater unity of vision and practice, they may well recapitulate the pattern of the previous generation of consumer food cooperatives, which went from thriving to declining to nearly disappearing. On the other hand, today's co-ops can expand upon that earlier generation's model of innovative consumer education and branding. For example, consider the importance of point of origin labeling, included in the recent farm bill (see Farm Bill report), and a consideration in the strategy of the National Cooperative Grocers Association (see NCGA report). Co-ops can build a powerful brand that signifies the trust and authenticity customers and owners want.

In defining and leading their cooperatives toward such a vision, board members in particular must take responsibility. They can no longer neglect spending board time understanding a changing environment and preparing for the future. Many co-op directors, unfortunately, have indeeed neglected these essential building blocks of sustainable organizations. Co-op directors must work to overcome the Achilles' heel of consumer democracy: their own lack of professionalism. They must neither micro-manage nor be stymied by the difficulty (evident in reports from co-ops in Iowa, New York, and elsewhere) of addressing cliques of members, even cliques of management, whose agenda undermines a democratic cooperative. Directors must provide vision and engage in planning.

The near future: Co-ops as well as redwood forests -- after ages of an evolving ecology, regenerating themselves both from the roots and from the seeds of the family -- are endangered by a destructive competitor: industrialism.

Those magnificent trees: Not only have many of the largest ones already been cut down; I learned during a guided walk that people most knowledgeable concerning the biome predict that the redwoods' southernmost home will in only the next human generation be inhospitably warm. These groves will be unable to retreat northward rapidly enough.

The edge of hope: That will be found not only in cooperatives and community-building endeavors but also in acts of solidarity with like-minded communities around the world. These actions will inevitably lead to confrontation with the wealth-centered policies that dominate our society. This is the point where many Americans, mostly comfortable but pained by the damage being done, will have their biggest challenge in overcoming fear.

The edge of responsibility: In cooperatives we are trying to make real the notion that ownership has responsibilities as well as privileges. As citizens in a powerful and privileged empire, we have responsibilities as well. Along with building communities and institutions that allow joy for all, we must also act in solidarity. We must redirect the enormous machinery that keeps many citizens in myopic comfort and distraction yet missing the spiritual truth found in actions of solidarity, in enduring and safe communities, in those redwoods.

The global community: We will confront the maldistribution of wealth that is making democracy impossible. We will act in solidarity with millions of other world citizens. And as a consequence, like the militant opponents of redwood logging, some will be described as aiding "terrorism."

See other articles from this issue: #101 July - August - 2002