This is a time of ever increasing awareness of food safety and the environmental damage being wrought by the dominant economic powers and their step child, petro-based agribusiness. To a lesser extent, there also is increasing awareness of possibilities for environmentally sound food production, and perhaps least of all, awareness of cooperatives as a form of democratic business that fosters consumer protection and stable, locally based economics. Nevertheless, if the results presented in the Cooperative Grocer Retail Operations Survey are a reliable indicator - and these results confirm perspectives that I've heard from a number of sources - then today's food cooperatives are in a good position to take advantage of the most recent upsurge in public awareness around food production and safety.
The survey results presented here report a well established trend of strong sales growth, and they portray businesses that are in most cases profitable and carrying strong balance sheets. All these characteristics must of course be manifested in the future as well if we are to build significantly on the increasing public interest in our field of work.
An advantageous market position for food cooperatives isn't new -- and it doesn't mean that our businesses are likely to realize an increasing share of the "natural food" market. On the contrary, that market may well grow faster than we do. Increasing market share for food cooperatives will be the case, we can happily predict, in numerous scattered areas where strong co-op retailers and wholesalers are leading the consumer movement toward safer food. But most of our businesses are small and fragmented - and it's in part because of those characteristics that we are unable to multiply our members and volume to the extent otherwise possible in an expanding market.
Fifteen to twenty years ago, food cooperatives experienced a similar period of rapid growth but then declining market share. Looking back to that earlier surge of co-op organizing and consumer interest, at least I can confidently say that we're much stronger, smarter cooperative businesses than we were then. Natural foods cooperatives had what was at least an equally advantageous market position at that time, but we didn't have the management or capital resources to sustain that position. Do we today? We're fewer in number -- but growth is booming!
Future editions of Cooperative Grocer will contain an evolving discussion or series of articles related to multi-store programs and new forms of retail development. As those of you know who read last year's commentary on the decline of the Berkeley Co-op and the Minnesota distributor DANCe, I believe our businesses suffer considerably from the predominant development pattern of independent stores and can benefit considerably from increased joint activities.
Meanwhile, for my own small project, l am trying to establish new links in a couple ways. By the date of the next edition, September 1, I'll have a new home base and temporary production arrangements in Athens, Ohio, and will be attempting to help establish a worker owned cooperative publishing business to include Cooperative Grocer. I also am becoming more involved with worker co-op development generally and with a loose but growing network of organizations in the field of worker ownership. Recently, in circumstances strangely parallel to the founding in 1978-79 of this magazine's predecessor, Moving Food, I found myself agreeing to coordinate production of an occasional newsletter for this worker ownership network. Perhaps from this work I can glean for present readers some lessons of relevance to your businesses as well.
Dave the Rave
Several weeks ago, I had the great pleasure to receive, through the National Cooperative Business Association, a "Cooperative Service Award" in recognition of my efforts over the years on behalf of cooperatives. The circumstances of the presentation itself and the supportive comments by many people -- among perhaps a hundred friends and associates from co-ops throughout the country, present in Davis, California, at the Consumer Cooperative Management Association conference -- generated what was for me a tremendous show of appreciation. As I said then, I feel proud and privileged to serve all of you, as individuals and as a movement. And I shall try to live up to the praise I've received by sustaining that service.