On December 10, Forbes.com published a column entitled “Is a Whole Foods Co-op in Your Future?,” written by Larry Light. Mr. Light is a well-known marketing guru and a regular contributor to the site. I have a great deal of respect for both the publication and the author, but regardless, the column displayed such a lack of understanding of cooperatives that I felt compelled to respond. I’d like to share this response with you, so my letter appears below in its entirety.
I have no expectations that this will run in rebuttal. The publication certainly has no shortage of contributors. But regardless, you have to speak up for the things you believe in, and I believe in co-ops.
If you want to talk more about this, reach out to me anytime. My door is always open. In the meantime, my thanks to our members for all your contributions to our co-op and the greater cooperative movement. -ed
A Whole Foods Co-op in Your Future? Get Real.
by Edward W. Fox
I’d like to thank Larry Light for his clearly well-intentioned, yet bafflingly off-base column of Dec. 10, “Is a Whole Foods Co-op in Your Future?” For those of us who are steeped in the cooperative movement–owning a cooperative business or depending upon a co-op job for our livelihoods–this sort of screwy missive ironically provides a golden opportunity in several respects. For one thing, Mr. Light did make some interesting points, and in particular I laud him for touching on the co-op movement’s connection to community. For another thing, the column is a great reason to have a broader discussion about what we in our business call “the cooperative difference,” which bears about as much resemblance to Whole Foods as a home-cooked meal does to a frozen dinner.
Bear with me for a quick history lesson here: Rochdale, England, is an industrious, hardscrabble town about 40 miles northwest of Liverpool, nestled in the moors and hill country. At the height of Europe’s Industrial Revolution, a spirited group of working-class weavers and artisans formed the first successful consumer cooperative there in 1844, and from the very beginning, it was an answer to the widespread Bezosian practices of the day. This was a time when a pound of tea cost a day’s wage, and wealthy merchants would mix flour with ground bone and tea with ground iron, selling it to the poor. Operating on the democratic principle of “one member, one vote,” the 28 members of the Rochdale Equitable Pioneers Society organized to control the cost and purity of their food. The Pioneers opened their first store at 31 Toad Lane in Rochdale on December 21, 1844. Their model soon spread around the world.
Today there are more than three million cooperatives on earth. These co-ops employ more than 280 million people, who work together to provide the vital services and infrastructure our society needs. In a world of increasing division, co-ops are united by seven international Cooperative Principles, which lay out the framework for an ethical and egalitarian way of doing business. At the heart of all this is the idea of shared ownership–a business owned by the very people who use its services and dedicated to serving the needs of a local community rather than lining the pockets of a single owner or small group of investors in another state or country.
To put it simply, a co-op is not Amazon.
Nobody is arguing with Bezos’ business acumen. And to be clear, this response isn’t an attack on Bezos, his monolithic company, or his recent acquisition, Whole Foods. But to link the cooperative movement with Bezos is absurd. Let’s not forget, Amazon purchased Whole Foods in the summer of 2017 for $13.4 billion, and two years later the medical benefits of nearly 2,000 Whole Foods employees were slashed. Does this sound like the “purpose-driven” and “community-oriented enterprise” Mr. Light somehow envisions?
Surely a salient theme of Mr. Light’s article is the cooperative movement’s connection to community, and here we largely agree. But the column misses the greater point entirely. One does not simply take a typical predatory, profit-driven business, inject it with a little extra social mission, and call it a co-op. In a co-op, business interests, democratic member control, and social and environmental responsibility are all interrelated and woven into a human-centric tapestry. This is why co-ops have long been social innovators and activists for change and socioeconomic justice. For instance, topics like fair trade, natural and organic foods, humanely raised meats, sustainability, and supporting local were championed by food co-ops long before any of these ideas caught on en masse.
In short, co-ops have been authentically “purpose-driven” and “community-oriented” since 1844, and they aren’t going anywhere. Not only is there a co-op in your future, co-ops are the future, as well as the here and now. And they won’t be blended into a hybrid that waters down what they stand for.
Edward W. Fox is the General Manager of the Hanover Co-op Food Stores in Hanover, N.H.—one of the oldest and largest food cooperatives in the United States.