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5 Reasons Co-Ops Are So Awesome

Association with co-ops can prolong life, and promote financial security.
 
 
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As of 2012, there were an estimated 1.4 million co-operatives in existence worldwide. Far from being a product of the flower-child era, co-ops are among the world's oldest and most resilient forms of social enterprise, ranging from the very large ( Best Western, for example) to the very small (Vancouver-based  SHIFT, for example), and today they have grown to hold a stake in everything from agriculture to politics.

In fact, so far-reaching is their influence that in 2009 the United Nations passed a unanimous resolution naming 2012 the  International Year of Co-operatives, to recognize their contribution to our social and economic landscape.

Here are five facts about a movement centuries in the making.

1. They've been around longer than you think

As in, close to  600 years.

Seriously.

That said, modern co-operative businesses can trace their roots back to the  Rochdale Principles, a set of guidelines developed in England in 1844 by a group of labourers known as the Rochdale Society of Equitable Pioneers.

They are believed to be the first co-operative in history to pay a patronage dividend, rewarding members financially for their investments. Every one of its 28 members paid a pound each toward housing, the establishment of a co-op store and the manufacture of goods, with the direction of the business to be determined solely by the members (this, especially, was unusual at the time).

And while the Pioneers are the most often cited example of early co-operative success, Rochdale in the mid-1800s was a hub of co-op activity (born from the depths of Industrial Revolution poverty and unemployment), beginning with the Rochdale Friendly Co-operative Society formed in 1830.

Rochdale was a solid beginning for the co-operative movement, and its establishment in North America wasn't far behind. Co-op organizations began appearing in North America in the late 1840s (often developing hand-in-hand with the burgeoning labour movement), with the first true co-op store in Canada  opening in Stellarton, Nova Scotia in 1861.

Farming co-ops were the first to have widespread success in Canada; between 1860 and 1900, farmers in Ontario and the Maritimes were responsible for developing a number of co-operative cheese and dairy factories, as well as mutual insurance. And 1906 saw the birth of the Grain Growers' Grain Company, which allowed prairie farmers to market directly to millers, as well as buyers in Europe.

2. Co-ops are everywhere

These days, there are co-ops in every corner of the business landscape, influencing how we get around, how and where we live and what our communities look like.

On the local level, the car-sharing co-op  Modo, which now boasts 250 vehicles and 10,000 members across the Lower Mainland, began back in 1997 with only two cars and 16 people.

Housing co-ops have existed successfully for decades, with many residents (such as those in Kitsilano's  Trafalgar Housing Co-op gearing up to celebrate their final mortgage payments before the end of the decade. Newer co-ops also continue to be developed and financed, including the  First Avenue Athlete's Village, where 25 per cent of the units feature below-market rents.

There are also community-minded organizations like  Common Thread (which employs mentally ill, newly-arrived, and low-income women to make tote bags from recycled street banners), as well as  Our Community Bikes and the  Vancouver Tool Library which provide members with tools they can borrow and workshops and seminars on how to use them.

And did you know that Ocean Spray (of Cranberry Cocktail fame) is a co-op? In existence since 1930, it includes more than 650 growers across North America, and as of 2005 boasted profits of more than $1.5 billion. Commercial cranberry producers have been involved in the co-operative movement for more than a century, and in fact, Ocean Spray's collective ownership structure has allowed it to survive a number of disastrous developments over the years, including a USDA cancer scare in 1959 (which saw fresh cranberry sales literally plummet to zero), and a widespread price collapse in the 1990s. Though it was originally founded under a far less catchy name ("Cranberry Canners, Inc."), and initially sold little more than jellied cranberry sauce, the co-op is now the largest collective producer of cranberries in the world.

 
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