Cooperatives are an old concept but a new issue. Issue not in the form of a problem but in the form of a solution. That’s right. I said it. SOLUTION! As the economy presents challenges to many, cooperatives offer a solution. Cooperatives (coops) are a group of people working together for a common mission. It can be a business model or a social structure.
As the U.S. saw a dramatic dip in demand for artisan work and a heightened demand for mass-produced cheaper goods with the industrial revolution in the 1800’s, so the developing world is experiencing a shift now. The local basket weaver in Rwanda cannot make a basket as cheaply as the factory that now operates in her same village. The solution? Either find a new trade or find a new market. But without access to education and the global market, change seems out-of-reach.
This is where a cooperative comes in. If 25 talented basket weavers join together, they can reach the American market, which has consumers desiring the originality of handmade goods as opposed to the inexpensiveness of mass-produced goods. Joined together, the weavers can share the cost of a website or etsy.com account and keep up supply for the international market.
Cooperatives also offer social assistance to people struggling. The Sankofa Center in Ghana provides food and shelter for HIV victims. To keep the nonprofit sustainable, the HIV victims create products that can be sold in the Sankofa Boutique website. Director Ronnie Shaw states, “All products are skillfully made using fair trade practices by our HIV/AIDS community cooperative in Ghana with pride for its purpose.”
As the economy of the U.S. shifted from artisans and trades to standardization and mass-production, people experienced a higher standard of living, though not without trade-offs. We again are experiencing a shift from industrialization into the human capital arenas of the economy. I believe we will again experience a higher quality of life, but not without some trade-offs. One trade-off is that workers need a higher education than high school. While scholarships and financial aid can offset the price of tuition, other costs associated with higher learning, such as room and board, can be overwhelming. Cooperatives offer a solution. Cooperative Housing is a house where people share the responsibilities of cleaning, cooking, and maintenance in order to offset the price of those things. Cooperatives also provide social and academic support through the group of people working toward the same goal: a college degree. Purdue University, close to where I grew up, hosts a number of successful coops and offers the pictured chart comparison.
Another trade-off we now see from mass-production is the use of toxic chemicals in our food. Organic producers are popular, but many consumers find the option too expensive. Food Cooperatives offer a solution for this as well. These cooperatives offer produce and dairy from locally grown sources for a cheaper price as members of the group work together to collect and store the food. The Produce Box in North Carolina even offers delivery to your front door, which saves members time and gas.
Coops aren’t new, but could they be the new solution? A mixture of what was right in different forms of economic structures? The U.N. is celebrating cooperatives by declaring 2012 the Year of the Cooperative. “The International Year of Cooperatives is intended to raise public awareness of the invaluable contributions of cooperative enterprises to poverty reduction, employment generation and social integration,” as described at http://social.un.org/coopsyear/. Only time will tell.