OP-ED: SHOP CO-OPS

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By Ed Townley

The U.S. Department of Agriculture just recalled 62,000 pounds of beef due to an E. coli outbreak, creating a nightmare for big grocery chains nationwide.

But for the millions of Americans who shop at food co-ops, there’s nothing to worry about. These small grocers obtain their meat and produce from a handful of trusted, local farmers.

Most big companies can’t offer such confident guarantees. Supply chains for just about every transnational firm are packed with sub-contractors and middlemen. If consumers want to ensure they’re purchasing high-quality, sustainable, ethically-sourced products — from beef to jeans — they ought to shop at co-ops.

Today’s consumers value corporate responsibility. Two-thirds of customers say they’d pay more for sustainable products. And three-quarters of Americans avoid companies whose values go against their own.

Large corporations often fail to live up to consumers’ expectations. For example, with rare exceptions like Eileen Fisher, a fellow B corporation, fashion companies often struggle with supply chain transparency. The 2018 Fashion Transparency Index, which ranks 150 fashion brands on social and environmental transparency, didn’t give a single brand more than a 58 on a 1-100 scale. Nine West, Dior, and Longchamp all scored a zero.

Co-ops and credit unions are designed to think differently. By definition, they are paragons of transparency and ethical business practices. They’re governed and owned by the members served by their businesses. Every member has an equal say in business operations and a personal stake in the co-op’s future. So they tend to treat and pay their employees well and deliver excellent service. They value long-term customer relationships over short-term profits.

Take Ace Hardware, which started in 1924 with a small group of hardware store owners in Chicago. Today, the company has more than 5,000 locations in its co-op family. Consumers named it “America’s Favorite Home Improvement Store” in a 2017 survey, in large part thanks to its helpful staff. Or consider Sunkist, the citrus brand headquartered in Valencia. The not-for-profit marketing cooperative is owned and operated by orange, grapefruit, and lemon growers in California and Arizona.

Co-ops reinvest heavily in their local communities, too. So when consumers choose to shop at a co-op, they’re indirectly supporting their friends and neighbors. For instance, Maine’s Portland Food Co-op uses some of its proceeds to purchase food from local farmers and then donate it to area food banks. Cornerstone Credit Union League in Plano, Texas works with the federal government to protect farm workers without U.S. identification from payday lenders. And at City Markets in Vermont, members help fund a different non-profit every month.

At my company, Cabot Creamery, every farm family in our co-op is committed to improving the communities in which they farm and sell their products. Cabot families volunteer in local schools and providing meals for firefighters — in the same towns where they make their cheese and sell their products. We even have a Gratitude Department through which our farmers donate products to local non-profits.

Now more than ever, consumers want to put their money where their hearts are. They can do so by patronizing co-ops and credit unions — which do good in their communities by doing right by their members.

Ed Townley is CEO of Cabot Creamery Co-op.

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