Co-ops and Environmental Action

We have much that we can be proud of. Co-ops in numerous towns and cities are active players in their community's environmental affairs. Historically, some of the first basic consumer protection and environmental protection acts by a retailer were at the Berkeley Co-op, which for three decades led its market in providing wholesome food, ingredient disclosure and other consumer food information, and recycling. Present day food co-ops in many areas still lead their market in offering organic and whole foods. Dispensing foods in bulk serves co-ops' waste-conscious shoppers and, especially in recessionary times, penny-conscious shoppers. And co-ops often are centers of networks and projects affecting their larger environment -- through education, boycotts, recycling, promoting organics, and more.

Of course, such concerns and activities are not unique to co-ops. We can applaud when private companies promote safer products, reducing waste and environmental damage, and give standing to social values beyond financial earnings.

But the cooperative structure, as a form of ownership and business enterprise, does uniquely address many of the needs of our economy and environment. We need both an economically fair world and a healthy world. Our cooperative ownership and ideals can be a source of strength for our businesses and part of rebuilding a threatened environment and a threatening economy. Co-ops have a fundamental role to play in building a healthy and economically fair world because their structure encourages, even mandates, an attitude of consumer protection, and because cooperative ownership encourages economic fairness.

Of course, co-ops are not necessarily identical with organic foods or cheap food or democratic management -- although the co-op structure lends itself well to such purposes. Co-ops are organizations formed to meet members' needs on a democratic basis. Cooperatives are a world-wide movement manifesting our basic desire to work together and to share fairly the results of the total contributions to the enterprise. Cooperatives are businesses with a broader social mission; their purpose is to meet member needs and to change the world. Both drives lead to concern for consumer protection and food safety. A co-op's membership and marketing services should reflect its democratic structure and participatory organizational culture.

The co-op structure, then, fits with a vision of economic fairness, and economic injustice is at the heart of environmental threats. As the people at Food First (Institute for Food and Development Policy) have demonstrated well, the problem of hunger stems not from a shortage of food or productive capacity but from a shortage of democracy. Similarly, I suggest that environmental degradation stems largely not from inadequate ideas or technology but from the imbalanced power of privately owned capital, under which business is primarily oriented to investors and return on investment, with other considerations treated as "externalities." (An example, one that has happened repeatedly: solar company is successful; oil company buys solar company; solar company declines and closes; total costs rise.)

Democratic economics, or fair distribution, is necessary if we are to make our way out of the present multiple crises. This means adopting limits on return on investment and having member-owner control not directly tied to capital -- just as in the co-op principles.

In co-ops, democratic economics must be modeled (within) as well as advocated (without, to the larger business world and public). Co-ops can demonstrate not only democratic ownership but democratic action. They can encourage further consumer and community/civic action through the co-op itself modeling such practices. In this vein, I foresee a strong, growing linkage of mutual interest among co-ops, organics, and farmer and consumer activism.

In the larger picture, worker and consumer ownership, sometimes in compromised versions, are increasingly relevant, a necessary ingredient of a restructured economy. We are witnessing a climax and possible breakdown of the huge state economies, which in turn are handmaidens to the transnational corporate powers. This centralized paradigm increasingly produces economic dinosaurs in a world needing more horizontally dispersed power, environmental sensitivity, flexibility and market niche orientation.

In this country, elected representatives, themselves largely under the sway of moneyed interests that finance their campaigns and vitiate conventional political action, have forfeited their constitutional power to disapprove wars and treaties, a process accelerated since World War II and continuing through numerous imperial adventures. Included here is GATT, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, whose current and critical round of negotiations is a previously unnoticed battleground of the transnational corporations vs. local control, local production, even local culture.

I do not exaggerate. GATT environmental standards are being used as a ceiling beyond which member countries may not go, not a minimum or foundation. Already local and national environmental restrictions are being nullified, with the active collusion of the U.S. government, courtesy of GATT. Here again is an arena in which co-ops have a role in mobilizing the many against the few.

Another example of this struggle is the current attempt by the Food and Drug Administration -- representing the medical-industrial complex and corporations whose empires of unsafe drugs, drinks, and altered foods are encouraged -- to deny legal sanction for consumer self care through herbs, vitamins, and natural foods. I hope co-ops are joining others in protesting this threat. The FDA seizing supplements from natural food stores is the same FDA that in the 1950s, alleging false medical claims were being made, imprisoned the brilliant psychologist and maverick scientist Wilhelm Reich and burned his books.

It is the struggle of one hierarchic world, one truth, under capital, with Lipton's and injustice for all, versus decentralized diversity and democracy. Co-ops need to assert themselves and be recognized as a vital part of the latter direction.

See other articles from this issue: #040 May - June - 1992