Cooperatives are as American as baseball and apple pie. Though the modern cooperative wasn’t established until 1844, Ben Franklin got the member-owned business ball rolling in this country as early as 1752. Borrowing a British business model, he convinced some neighbors to join him in forming an insurance company owned by its policyholders. And the idea caught on.
Today, cooperatives are an everyday part of life in the United States. These businesses are a powerful economic force, distinctive because they are owned and controlled by the people who use their products or services — and also share in the profits.
Living in a co-op world
U.S. cooperatives serve some 130 million members, or about half of all Americans. But nearly everyone experiences a daily co-op connection. Wherever you live, work or shop, it’s likely a cooperative is involved.
Just stopping by Starbucks to pick up java and a cranberry muffin to enjoy with your morning newspaper can involve a multitude of co-ops. That premium Sumatra Siborong-Borog coffee was purchased from a grower co-op in Indonesia. The flour in the muffin probably started as wheat from a farmer-owned grain elevator cooperative in the Midwest, and the cranberries might be from Ocean Spray, a producer-owned co-op. The Associated Press, a news purchasing co-op, likely provided some of the big headlines you read in your newspaper.
For many, the word co-op conjures images of a New York City apartment or a farm scene. But the cooperative way of doing business has a strong foothold across the American landscape, representing a broad cross-section of people and industries.
- • Native Alaskans living within the Arctic Circle as well as retirees in sunny Florida receive electric and telecommunications services through cooperatives.
- • Almost one in three Americans are members of a credit union, which is a cooperative.
- • American businesses such as homebuilders, hospitals and even hamburger makers purchase supplies cooperatively.
- • Artists as well as artichoke farmers sell their products through co-ops.
- • Members of worker-owned co-ops run the gamut from Web site designers in New Orleans to taxi drivers in Madison, Wisconsin.
Backing popular brands
Cooperatives are behind some of the best-known names in America. Producer co-ops make power-house brands such as Cabot cheese, Blue Diamond almonds and Welch’s grape juice. Insurance giant Nationwide and outdoor equipment retailer REI are member-owned businesses.
That Taco Bell lunch has a cooperative link, too. Many fast-food chain franchisees acquire their ingredients through a purchasing co-op. Ace and True Value hardware retailers and Carpet One store owners secure their inventory the same way.
Source: the National Co-op Month Committee