Our group has been discussing the starting up of a co-op for local food, goods and services. One of the major bones of contention in our conversations is the problem that the food, etc. at small co-ops and local stores are usually more expensive.
But why is the price at the co-op higher? And (just as revealing), why is the price at the supermarket lower? Everyone knows the answers by now. The real question is: why, even among a group of committed local activists, doesn’t that knowledge translate into action? The action being to put one’s money where one’s mouth is by paying the extra cost of doing ethical business?
Personally, I have no problem with paying the extra cost of food that is grown by local business that treat their employees, the community and the earth well.
At Whole Foods, the only non-local place where I shop, mostly for milk (most of my food is from a CSA box, my garden and coop, and foraging), a store manager once asked me why I was buying the Organic Valley instead of the organic Whole Foods milk. He said, it’s the same milk and you save $1.50. I told him that that may well be, but they’re not the same business: Organic Valley is a farmers co-op. WF by far is not (he should know). I’ll gladly pay extra for that.
You might say: well, you can afford it! Why yes, I can… but is that a reason why I shouldn’t? You might say: well others can’t afford that. To which I say exactly the same: is that a reason why I shouldn’t?
(These reactions always surprise me but I see where they’re coming from, same as the accusation “but you’re nevertheless shopping at Whole Foods, and you drove your car there, and, o my, are you also buying a bag of cookies??” They are the reactions of people driven into false corners of the culture’s devising, where they are told their last resort is to lash out with guilt and judgment in the form of the poison of purity… But, back to the issue at hand.)
We have to accept that, as Rafter writes in a recent blog post on Liberation Ecology, we are…
faced with the formidable task of regenerating ecosystems and communities, while surviving in a system that rewards the destruction of the same systems. Permaculture projects have to compete with degenerative enterprises and institutions that are happy to take the efficiency ‘bonus’ from unsustainable and exploitative practices.
Our local regenerative efforts are set in a widespread and deep-rooted, global degenerative context. That’s why local is more expensive than global and that’s why most of us can’t afford it. But let’s be clear that the first doesn’t mean that paying a little extra isn’t worth it (or actually the true cost of living), and the second doesn’t mean that those who can afford it, shouldn’t. In fact, it makes perfect economic sense: by paying that little extra, I make the co-op milk cheaper, so more people can start affording it.
And that’s how we get the ball rolling, not just economically, but ethically as well. As Rafter points out:
worker cooperatives in production, community development financial institutions in finance, and community land trusts in consumption/ownership […] All of these models can mesh in straightforward ways with the existing economic system, while at the same time undermining it. Substituting collective ownership for private ownership has a cascade of effects that make it possible for enterprises to optimize for multiple functions – including ecological and social health – instead of simply maximizing profit.
When I think about starting a co-op, I’m aiming for that cascade. I’m not thinking to save some money. I’m hoping to save (a tiny bit) of the world, but changing it from the inside out.