Is Your Cutting Edge Dull?

This edition's report on the merger of twenty-eight Atlantic Canada co-ops states that the new board of directors must answer those who ask, "Why should I belong, why should I be active?" Although the Canadian co-ops began in an earlier generation, the same member owner question must be answered at other food co-ops. And similar larger market players now shape the environment around a co-op's response.

A large part of the answer to those member questions, Tom Webb asserts, will be based on trust: trust in the quality of products, trust in truthful merchandising and education, trust in the co-op's commitment to certain values. Again, delivering such trustworthy and reliable service is obviously of supreme importance for other co-ops as well.

However, the writer (in the original) went on to say that while the Rochdale Co-op was founded because merchants were putting chalk in the flour and rock in the coal, such problems no longer confront co-op members. On the contrary! Most food co-ops thrive on recognition that there is junk in the mainstream food and damage on the mainstream farm, and that cooperatives are a great way to meet the need for more trustworthy and nourishing food. These co-ops' market position rests on:

1) recognition of tremendous problems in industrial food production, practices very damaging to the health of people and our natural resources; and

2) positive practices, including organic and local food production, and an image derived from education and trust, a position flowing from their democratic, community-based ownership structure.

No, co-ops do not have a unique claim to providing access to sustainably produced and organic foods. But they are positioned to do it well. Yes, co-op managers and their staff and boards of directors have to do it all. They have to make money in a competitive environment and a tight labor market while providing services and member opportunities that competitors don't have or don't do well.

Still, the demand for trustworthy products and information, for certified organic, for food free of damaging production processes and supportive of local and sustainable agriculture systems -- all these are strong and growing market factors in the world today. Co-ops face mainstream grocers beginning to carry more organic products, and they face natural food supermarkets that tout it yet may not actually sell much organics nor actively support local production. These competitors can be bettered by well managed, well capitalized co-ops that sharpen their vision and their cutting edge tool: education.

See other articles from this issue: #093 March - April - 2001