COOPERATIVES, ECOLOGY, AND RESILIENCE
George Cheney, Professor Emeritus, Communication,
The University of Colorado Independent Consultant, Cortez, Colorado
Note: This article is based substantially on chapter 5 of the forthcoming book, Cooperatives at Work (Cheney, Noyes, Do, Vieta, Azkarraga, & Michel, 2023), in a series entitled “The Future of Work” by Emerald Press (UK).
Cooperatives, like many other businesses, have been criticized in the past two decades for not taking climate change seriously enough as they formulate and update their policies. This is parallel to criticism about co-ops not fully embracing diversity, equity, inclusion and justice. These discussions are prodding cooperative associations, like the International Cooperative Alliance, to add two new principles to their long-established list of seven (June 2021] for a discussion of principles: The Cooperative Difference. A principle about ecological orientation and practice was proposed at the “Imagine 2012” conference in Quebec, but it has still not been widely adopted (see, e.g., the broad-ranging and compelling set of principles at: solidarityeconomyprinciples.org.
The overwhelming evidence of human-caused climate change and the frequency and intensity of climate-related disasters have led to a much-needed reckoning in the cooperative community worldwide. The sheer number of super-storms with massive flooding, unparalleled numbers of wildfires, and the acceleration of species extinction, have underscored the need for rapid reassessment of goals and a pivot toward planetary system health. As a result, the planet on which we —and all other species—depend is now beginning to take center stage in the principles of many co-ops and even in the development of new cooperatives dedicated to environmental awareness, and when possible, to regeneration and restoration.
For cooperatives of all types, as fundamentally value-driven businesses, we can think of three major spheres of concern, like the Triple Bottom Line coined by John Elkington in the UK in 1995. The first arena centers on the rights and needs of members, where they be worker-owners, producers, consumers, or cooperative service providers see article on Types of Cooperatives in the February 2021 issue). It’s understandable for any type of co-op to revolve around its members—offering them specific benefits, like patronage dividends—and secondarily, to consider partners, supporters, and allies. We then move to the second sphere, the community or communities in which co-ops reside or with which they do business. The question here comes down to impact on communities and responsibility to them. When co-ops are rooted in and connected to their communities, then their actions are measured against the well-being of those communities. For instance, co-ops are proven to be less likely than traditional business to pick up and move its activities to a new location just to cut certain costs.
The third and widest realm is the environment on which all business, commerce, and human activity rests. It’s important to say “the real environment” because in theories about organizations and business, the term environment often refers chiefly to other organizations—competitors, regulators, partners, consumers, etc.—in effect, obscuring the physical world and the relationship of any organization with planetary systems. This narrow lens makes it easier to overlook things like waste and environmental damage, and then not even ask questions about whether the products or services of business are as beneficial to the environment as they could be (or in some cases, whether they are desirable at all from an environmental standpoint).
Businesses can do better, just as can cities and towns, neighborhoods, and households. Today we see more and more cooperatives incorporating ecological initiatives and measures, either from the start or by expanding their work to include genuine environmental concerns.
A great example on the international level is Sustainability Solutions Group (SSG), a worker-owned-and-managed environmental consulting co-op, with worker-members ranging across Canada, the US, and Chile (www.ssg.coop). Environmental concern is “baked into” SSG and therefore into most of its policies and activities. Ecology is the focus of its analyses and consultations with businesses, cities, governmental agencies, and regions. At the same time SSG applies environmental standards internally, towards a type of constant improvement where its own uses of energy and production of waste are concerned. With a stress on the resiliency of eco-systems as well as on their own practices, co-ops like SSG are leading the way.
The resilience of co-ops became a major topic of research for the International Labour Organization (ILO) (www.ilo.org) after the global economic crash of 2008 and the years that followed. It was found that in general cooperatives fared better than traditional businesses in responding to this crisis, in large part because they were better prepared through democratic governance to make difficult decisions and keep the business as well as its members afloat. Democratic governance allows the collective to take responsibility for tough choices—for example, for members of a worker co-op to take a temporary pay cut to preserve everyone’s jobs.
What we need now is not just economic resilience but environmental resilience. Here are some ways that co-ops are able to place environmental concerns to heart in their policies and practices:
- Most cooperatives are strongly rooted in place—even if that means being part of a larger network. “Glocalism” makes sense to cooperatives, where they have their local focus but also maintain a wider awareness.
- True cooperatives are member-owned and member-governed. Instead of focusing on the needs of outside investors, co-ops focus on the needs of members and communities and increasingly, the planet. A dual form of democracy provides a solid foundation for leveraging a turn towards the environment.
- Cooperatives are accustomed to collaborating amongst themselves and with many other organizations. This gives them the agility and adaptability that they need to solve difficult environmental problems.
- Cooperatives tend to be more reflective on their own activities than traditional businesses. Instead of just judging success by shareholder returns or other narrow measures of performance, cooperatives think about what will make communities stronger and healthier, and what we all need to survive and thrive.
- When cooperatives choose to modify their policies and practices, there can be collective “ownership” of that change. This group investment in change allows more rapid movement towards new goals that help the very environment of which co-ops are part.
For all these reasons, cooperatives are well suited to putting a real value on the environment and making it an important stakeholder in decisions—even though the environment itself cannot speak or contribute directly to decision making.
Cooperative ecology and resilience apply equally to rural and urban areas. In fact, cooperative initiatives that link rural communities to urban centers around sustainable food systems have a powerful side benefit of educating society about connections between food production, distribution, and consumption. These connections can be fostered not only through purchases of food by individuals and households—for instance, through community supported agriculture, farmers’ markets, and buying clubs—but also through sweat equity—like school to farm programs and similar volunteer initiatives for adults. Moreover, farm labor justice can be interwoven with commitments to sustainability through widely coordinated efforts for placement and support of workers and, at the same time, assisting farmers and ranchers with finding the help they need. Deeper collaboration between these groups is both possible and desirable.
Some cooperatives, including cooperative farms in the US and Canada, not only dedicate themselves to the perspective of permaculture but try to mimic natural systems with their own organizational structures that may look a lot more like webs than pyramids. Among other things, such a perspective means that our accustomed orientation towards growth—bigger is necessarily better—is challenged in favor of a more systemic view of relationships between agriculture with the Earth. Existing cooperatives often “scale out,” spreading like strawberry plants.
Ultimately, the cooperative model is especially well suited to confront climate disruptions head on, through initiatives like mutual support among farmers for crop conversions and sustainable grazing; through large-scale diversification of plant species to support pollinators as well as to wean farms off toxic herbicides and pesticides; through collaborations around water allocation, usage, and saving; through seed banks and the cultivation of species most adaptable to drought-afflicted regions; and in disaster preparedness and response. These are just a few examples.
Renewable energy cooperatives are also proliferating, thanks in large part to influential success stories like Namasté Solar, a large and successful worker cooperative in Boulder, Colorado that is supporting the development of diverse cooperatives including those involved in social and sustainable capital (www.namastesolar.com). All these areas for cooperative development are being pursued today and should be expanded in the future.
Cooperatives can serve as dynamic hubs in local and regional economies, surrounded by larger clusters of similarly aligned businesses, non-profits, and public agencies. Such collaborative networks can realize holistic, forward-looking visions for entire regions. This is exactly what is beginning to appear, as co-ops and co-op development centers are working more closely than ever with socially conscious funders, land trusts, social entrepreneurship centers, forward-looking landowners and investors, and new types of agencies focused on climate-related challenges. At this time in human history when more cooperation than ever is needed, cooperatives provide viable and inspiring models to face rather than shy away from the realities and challenges for the very continuation of society and the environment as we know them.