What is a Cooperative?
A cooperative, or co-op, is a business or organization owned and operated by a group of people for their mutual benefit. Cooperatives are based on the principles of cooperation, self-help, and self-responsibility.
Cooperatives exist in many different sectors of the economy, including agriculture, energy, banking, healthcare, housing, and insurance. In the United States, there are approximately 30,000 cooperatives, which collectively employ more than 2 million people and generate $654 billion in annual revenue.
Cooperatives have a long history. The first recorded cooperative was formed in 1621 in Fenwick, England. A group of weavers pooled their resources and purchased a piece of land on which they built a shared workshop. The Fenwick Weavers’ Society is still in operation today.
The cooperative movement began to gain momentum in the 18th and 19th centuries with the rise of industrialization and the consequent decline of cottage industries. In response to poor working conditions and low wages, workers began to form cooperatives to pool their resources and negotiate better terms with their employers.
The cooperative movement was also influenced by the writings of thinkers such as Robert Owen, who advocated for the creation of “cooperative commonwealths” in which workers would share in the profits of their labor.
The Rochdale Society of Equitable Pioneers, founded in 1844, is often cited as the first successful consumer cooperative. The society was formed by a group of weavers in Rochdale, England who pool their money to purchase food and other necessities at wholesale prices.
The cooperative movement continued to grow in the 20th century. In response to the Great Depression, President Franklin Roosevelt signed into law the Cooperative Marketing Associations Act of 1939, which provided for the creation of cooperative marketing associations. The act was a boon to farmers’ cooperatives, which were struggling to compete with large corporations.
The United Nations recognized the importance of cooperatives in its 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which includes a goal to “build resilient infrastructure, promote inclusive and sustainable industrialization and foster innovation.”