-- By Mark Gurarie
Cooperative businesses, in which members own a stake in the company, emerged in the US first and foremost as a means of survival. In the face of a consolidating agricultural industry brought on by the industrial revolution, some of the first were formed by small dairy farmers in the 1810s, who found a need to pool together to share costs and increase buying power against larger competitors. An alternative to traditional business structure, founded on altruistic ideas about collaboration and collectivity, they’ve made and continue to make an indelible mark. There are currently about 29,000 co-ops operating in the country within every major industry: agriculture, housing, grocery stores, breweries like Anchor Steam, credit unions, electrical companies, Ben & Jerrys, and many more. According to the USDA, 75% of milk sold in the US comes from coop farms.
Though there are different types, their aim is the same: to create profit not for individual business owners or anonymous investors, but for their members, who have a stake in the whole. In an economy in which the scales tend to tip for larger, richer entities, co-ops offer representation, stability, greater democratic control of operations, and another way to think about how businesses run and what social purposes they should serve.