ORONO – From beef producers in Mars Hill to a teller’s window in Sanford, cooperatives are feeling like there is no better time to promote their values and activities.

With notable investor-owned corporations such as British Petroleum, Goldman Sachs, and General Motors in the media spotlight on account of various woes and transgressions, the cooperative idea of “business rooted in community” seems particularly timely.

On the other hand, other investor-owned businesses are mimicking long-standing cooperative principles – in their actions, their products, and their marketing.

Fortune 500 companies, from Bank of America to GE, are stressing concepts like sustainability and concern for community, and launching programs to address major problems ranging from greenhouse gas emissions to home ownership.

For cooperatives, concepts like sustainability, community involvement and democratic control are more than just buzzwords. They are basic to how they do business. Cooperatives around the world voluntarily honor a set of co-op principles and values known as the International Statement of Co-op Identity (www.ica.coop)

Cooperatives have “multiple bottom lines,” with social, environmental and financial goals. Credit unions (which are legally structured as depositor-owned cooperatives) make a special effort to serve those underserved by for-profit banks.

Agricultural co-ops help small farmers stay on their land. Electric and telephone cooperatives serve less-profitable rural areas ignored by investor-owned utilities.

Each October, more than 165 cooperative businesses and support organizations in Maine help celebrate national Cooperative Month. Cooperatives are businesses that are owned and operated by and for their members to serve the needs of those members.

In Maine, cooperatives provide housing, employment, food, marketing services, banking, manufactured goods, education, electricity and heating oil. They work in fields as diverse as fishing, agriculture, arts and crafts, and publishing.

Co-ops are owned by rank-and-file Americans — people and businesses that buy co-op products and use co-op services. Surplus revenue is distributed to their member-owners, rather than to investors.

A cooperative’s governance is open and democratic, led by unpaid directors elected by and largely from the membership.

While most Maine cooperatives are relatively small, there are very large cooperatives in the national economy. The top 100 cooperatives in the United States had total revenues of more than $150 billion in 2006.

Cooperatives employ more than 600,000 people, with an aggregate payroll of more than $15.5 billion annually, and generate annual revenues in excess of $273 billion. In agriculture, 3,000 cooperatives, with 2.8 million members, market approximately one-third of U.S. farm products.

Approximately 8,500 credit unions have more than 90 million members and $750 billion in assets. Nearly 1,000 cooperatives own and maintain almost half of the electric distribution lines in America. Their lines cover three-quarters of the country and provide electricity to 39 million Americans.

More than 350 retail and wholesale cooperatives have annual revenues of $33.5 billion. Retail food cooperatives alone have 500,000 members. Some 300 cooperatives serve 50,000 independent small businesses.

A 2003 survey by the National Cooperative Business Association and the Consumer Federation of America found that two-thirds of consumers believe businesses owned and governed by their customers, with consumers on their boards, are more trustworthy than those that do not.

A majority said that locally owned and controlled companies that allow customers to democratically elect the board of directors are more trustworthy. More than 75 percent of those surveyed agreed that co-ops run their businesses in a trustworthy manner, compared with just 53 percent for investor-owned companies.

More than two-thirds agreed consumer-owned co-ops are ethically governed, while just 45 percent said the same of investor-owned corporations. Co-ops also rated higher on value, quality, price and community commitment.

There is a broad range of resources available for citizens who wish to learn more about or start a cooperative. Cooperative Maine is a fledgling statewide organization committed to increased cooperative development in Maine.

 

- Special to The Press Herald