A Case for a Cooperative Economy

Disrupting Business As Usual

by Peter Frank

I rely every day on cooperative businesses owned and controlled by my neighbors and friends. I buy groceries from Kensington Community Food Co-op, source my energy from the Energy Co-op, bank with Philadelphia Federal Credit Union and Sun Federal Credit Union, and drink coffee and dine at W/N W/N Coffee Bar, a worker-owned co-op. In the near future, I’ll likely join or use other co-ops for web hosting, brewing craft beer, taking a taxi, sending my son to a preschool and even investing my money: There is an investment club that invests in co-ops. I go out of my way to patronize co-ops because they directly benefit our communities. 

Philly has a vibrant co-op scene that is on the verge of becoming a significant driving force in our local economy. Our region already has more than 175 co-ops and credit unions, with several new co-ops in development. These are businesses that are owned and controlled by their members on a democratic “one member, one vote” basis. Co-ops exist to serve the needs of their local member-owners, which is radically different than businesses that exist to maximize profit. Co-ops certainly need to make a profit to survive, but they typically aim to make enough money to cover their costs, which gives co-ops the freedom to value the rights of workers, support their communities, treat their suppliers fairly and invest in environmental sustainability. This is a radically different approach to the corporations that boost profits for distant shareholders by choosing to harm the environment, slash wages and eliminate jobs. If you think about it, co-ops are the original form of social enterprise: they’re viable businesses with community-driven missions.

Co-ops aren’t a new concept by any means.  For hundreds of years, people have formed cooperatives to combat social, economic and environmental injustices. The massive economic problems we face today are inspiring people to form co-ops to fight poverty, income inequality, racial inequality and threats from climate change. The resurgence is a direct response to the corporate malfeasance that caused the Great Recession.

Our region’s cooperative economy is growing steadily, due in large part to cooperatives working together. The sixth international cooperative principle—cooperation among cooperatives—encourages co-ops to do business with each other, provide support when a co-op struggles, invest in each other and collaborate on projects. To that end, co-ops in the area came together in 2011 to form the Philadelphia Area Cooperative Alliance (PACA), a network of cooperatives dedicated to growing the cooperative economy. PACA unites cooperatives of all kinds to strengthen our collective impact on the people and communities in our region that need the unique benefit that cooperatives offer. Every day, locally owned cooperative businesses make our our economy more fair, just and democratic.

Peter Frank is the Executive Director of the Philadelphia Area Cooperative Alliance, and also serves on the board of the Energy Co-op and the Kensington Community Food Co-op.