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Co-ops Commit to Sustainability & Inclusion

     by Erbin Crowell

Editor's Note: Co-op Corner is a new quarterly feature, exploring the world of cooperatives.

Last year saw global temperatures that were the hottest on record, a steadily widening gap in wealth and opportunity, and electoral processes that have drifted far from our ideals of democracy, diversity, and dialog.

Erbin Crowell

Challenging times also produce inspiring responses, and in this new year people around the world are coming together to build more inclusive, sustainable and participatory communities. In many places, co-operatives are and continue to be an important part of the solution.

At the time of the founding of the first formal co-ops in the 1800s, economic democracy was a rather controversial idea. The Industrial Revolution had introduced unprecedented advances in efficiency, and with it the displacement of traditional economies and the concentration of wealth, power and political influence. Co-ops offered an alternative for working people – one rooted in ideals of democracy, communal self-help and solidarity – and grew rapidly.quiet zone

Today, co-operative enterprise is enshrined in the legal statutes of most states in the U.S. as a unique business model that is owned and governed by its members – the people who use the organization for products, services or employment. In today's political climate, however, it is difficult to overstate how radical the idea is of business being democratically controlled by people on the basis of one person one vote, rather than how much capital an individual has invested. Still, more than a billion people around the world are members of co-ops: from farmer co-ops to food co-ops, credit unions and work co-ops, housing co-ops and artisan co-ops, there are more co-op members than direct owners of corporate stock.

As enterprises driven by a distinct set of values and principles, co-operatives combine both social and economic purposes. And since the Great Recession in 2008, co-ops and credit unions have received renewed attention as successful, community-based economic alternatives that puts people before profit – and not only survived but grew in the aftermath of the global financial crisis. In 2012, for example, the United Nations celebrated the International Year of Co-operatives, recognizing the role of the movement in poverty reduction, employment and social integration. As the Year's celebrations drew to a close, the International Co-operative Alliance (ICA) presented its "Blueprint for a Co-operative Decade," envisioning co-ops as the leaders in economic, social and environmental sustainability, and the fastest growing business model by 2030.

Founded in 1895, the ICA has worked closely with the UN in its efforts to build a more just and peaceful world. In 2015, the UN approved its 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which includes seventeen priorities that recognize that sustainability is not simply a matter of conserving resources, but includes other priorities including the elimination of poverty, gender equality, and reducing wealth disparities. In response, delegates at the International Summit of Co-operatives in Quebec approved "Co-operatives: The Power to Act," a declaration calling on co-ops around the world to commit to the UN's Sustainable Development Goals.

"The co-operative business model needs to be promoted and shared because co-operative enterprises foster democracy, social inclusion and operate with concern for the environment," said Monique F. Leroux, President of the ICA, in presenting the Declaration.

For co-ops, this campaign is an opportunity to engage their communities in a positive vision for the future while communicating their difference to consumers, activists and policymakers. From energy conservation to clean power, building community wealth to sustainable jobs, honoring diversity to food security, co-ops have much to offer and much to gain from engagement in this effort to build a more sustainable future for everyone.

Many co-ops in our region are focusing on their role in the current political environment, and working to address issues of diversity and inclusion as they work to empower people in their communities. "The extraordinary political events taking place in our country are affecting us deeply," wrote worker co-op Real Pickles in a blog post. "They highlight how far we have to go to build the just, democratic, and sustainable society we wish to see."

This Spring, the Neighboring Food Co-op Association approved a 'Statement on Diversity, Inclusion & Democracy': "From our beginnings, co-ops have celebrated human diversity and worked to bring people together to meet our needs and achieve our aspirations," reads the document. "In short, we believe that we are better when we are welcoming, when we lift one another up, and when we work together to make life better for everyone."

On July 1st co-ops and credit unions across our region and around the world will celebrate the International Day of Co-operatives, observed jointly by the ICA and the UN since 1995. This year's commemoration will focus on the theme of "Inclusion," economic democracy, and how co-ops can provide a space where all people, regardless of race, gender, culture, social background or economic circumstance, can meet their needs and build better communities, together.

As we celebrate Independence Day with July 4th parades, barbecues, and rallies, we may also want to consider the connections between economic democracy and a healthy political democracy, and our path as a nation.

Erbin Crowell is Executive Director of the Neighboring Food Co-op Association and serves on the Board of Directors of the National Co-operative Business Association / CLUSA International.

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