Co-operatives and externalities.

I am struck by what an amazing opportunity it is to go back and revisit an experience that had a profound affect on one’s development. Nine years ago, my trip to visit the co-operative sector in Emilia-Romagna deepened my knowledge and understanding of coops and gave me a springboard to get more deeply involved in the coop movement. Now, with all the knowledge and experience I’ve developed over the last few years, I am back here and soaking in all I’m learning and seeing, framed by my more nuanced eyes.

Tours to coops start tomorrow. So far we’ve had two days of lectures by Stefano Zamagni, Vera Negri Zamagni and Flavio Delbono on the history of coops and co-operative economics.

In Stefano’s lecture, he spoke about coops as a complement to the standard corporate practices within the capitalist world. I have long thought of coops as serving market failures. I once had someone in the world of coops tell me that no one ever started a coop who wasn’t pissed off. As part of a market failure, a group of people can’t get something they need join together and do for themselves what no one would do for them. If their needs were being met somehow, they wouldn’t have started the coop. Virtually every Credit Union and coop I’ve ever met has a genesis story like this. In the 1940s, people couldn’t get credit to buy houses east of Main Street in Vancouver so they started Vancity. In the 1990s, a group of residents in Vancouver’s West End wanted to try sharing cars amongst themselves so they started Modo. Anyone who knows a coop well should recognize this narrative within their origin story.

What Professor Zamagni linked was beyond the small market failures that necessitated the development of local co-operatives, and spoke to the systemic market failures that capitalist enterprises produce such as income inequality and environmental exploitation. I am not an anti-capitalist, but I do see the flaws in the system. Things I care about deeply and believe are vital to the kind of society I want to live in and to a planet hospitable to people and animals are considered to be externalities in the capitalist model. They aren’t measured or given a cost and therefore become issues to be dealt with by governments or the commons.

Coops are a necessary complement to the capitalist model. They are governed by people who have aligned themselves around a common cause and so those externalities are often internalized. They operate at a human level. Worker coops will deal with the relatively shrinking wages faced by workers. Coops of all kinds are usually rooted in a place and so they care about the treatment of the environment their members live within.

One major challenge coops face is how to compete in an economy where people want cheaper and cheaper goods forcing down wages and creating a system where many people have less earning power to buy goods and services. If we join this race to the bottom, we’re not living up the co-operative principles. There are no easy answers, and coops face serious challenges, but are needed more than ever as a complement or counter balance to the downsides of capitalism.

Back to Bologna…

in June of 2009 I had an experience that would transform my career. I applied and was selected to join Vancity’s annual tour to the vibrant co-operative sector in Bologna, Italy. In the Emilia Romagna region of Italy, where Bologna is located, up to a third of the GDP is created directly by co-operatives. Consumer co-ops, worker co-ops, producer co-ops, social co-ops and others all contribute to a vibrant economy.

While in Bologna I blogged a lot and tried to make the most of my valuable time there. Since that time, I have become quite the self-progressed co-op geek. Although I had been a member of some co-ops in my life such as MEC and REI and I grew up visiting Vancity branches as a kid with my Mom, I didn’t know much. At the time I went to Bologna, I was living in a housing co-op where I was Treasurer, and I remember what I learned studying co-operative economics at the University of Bologna and visiting so many different co-ops on our tour made me realize how little I know about the model where I was elected as a governor.

If I hadn’t been to Bologna in 2009, I doubt I would have run for the board of Modo, where I have been a happy board member for over four years. I most certainly wouldn’t have been able to give the talks I have given on co-ops over the years.

And now, nine years after that first visit, I’m hours from leaving to go back to Bologna, leading this year’s tour of Vancity colleagues and community partners. I feel very privileged to return, to take a dive with my more experienced eyes into the academic and hands-on aspects of one of the world’s great co-op success areas. I am even missing my beloved Credit Union Water Cooler conference, which I never want to do.

I’ll be blogging, as I did nine years ago. So follow along, ask questions and leave a comment, and let’s explore the world of co-ops together.

What’s your money doing right now?

I wrote a piece about Vancity’s business model and our support for Modo as an example of that.

Here in B.C., we think about how our actions affect our community. We watch how we consume and recycle, we shop locally, we compost, and we’re concerned about our effects on the planet.

I say “we” because we know from a recent poll that in B.C. 98% of us say we recycle all or some of the time; 89% of us read ingredients to make healthy food choices, and 52% of us commute in an environmentally responsible way. A third of us say that we research the ethics of companies we are considering purchasing from.

Check out the whole post

Where we go from here.

Photo taken by me at the new Trump Tower during the Vancouver Women’s March on January 21, 2017.

It’s been a hard week for many of us.

I’ve noticed at conferences and gatherings that there are many colleagues in the credit union movement who don’t get into politics, and at times that’s a lovely respite from all the arguing. We all want to see our communities increase their self-reliance. Whether you’re into it because you like to see a non-governmental actor dive into the solution or because you see the need for progressive financial institutions shoring up what should be the government’s responsibility, we are working for common goals.

In this uncertain time we are entering, our core values are likely to be pressured and many of the people we’re here to serve will need increased support. We need to have healthy discussion in the movement about our purpose. Our “why.”

I came across this excellent five-part podcast from NPR’s On The Media about poverty in America called Busted: America’s Poverty Myths. I believe this should be required listening to any of us who believe in the core purpose of a credit union to increase the financial inclusion of our neighbours. What would result if groups of people in your co-operatives listened to this and came together, book-club style to discuss? What would happen if we invited our boards and members into that dialogue? Poverty is real and often our belief in a meritocracy is just that: more a belief than a reality.

I offer up the following for discussion.

Originally published on the CU Water Cooler.

Knives and forks, a community investment co-op.

In my role at Vancity, I think a lot about an inclusive, sustainable and also vibrant local economy. And I am a hypocrite.

Oh, I’m not alone, all my colleagues and peers are hypocrites too.

We support local businesses. Especially businesses that create a local food economy, hire people with barriers to employment, support new Canadians as they settle so they can be productive and happy in their new country, help companies trying to reduce the carbon emissions they put into the environment and help people reduce the carbons they emit in their lives.

Why are we hypocrites? Our personal investments can’t be put into these kinds of companies. Instead, at best, our mutual funds can screen out companies whose ethics we disagree with. But you can’t screen out everything we disagree with or there’d be almost nothing left to invest in. Big banks? No thanks. Oil and gas? Uh-uh. Resource extraction? No way.

Assuming we’re all investing in socially responsible investments, we’re investing in national and multi-national companies that are moving along a spectrum towards greater sustainability. That’s better than putting our hard-earned money capitalizing companies that we don’t support, endorse or whose practices we actively disagree with. But the government says we can’t invest in the local food market down the street trying to bring local food to our community. (No one sums this up better than Michael H. Shuman.)

The government says we can go to the casino down the road and gamble away our life savings. Sure, that’s allowed. But putting some retirement savings into a local business we can touch and shop at and support? That’s verboten.

Until now.

12072555_1168714549823067_2646994795263451844_nSay hello to the Knives and Forks Community Investment Co-op – it’s the newest co-op that I’m a member of. It uses the co-operative structure to allow ordinary people (aka: unaccredited investors) to invest increments of $2,400 into local businesses after becoming a co-op member for a $100 membership share purchase. Knives and Forks focuses on local businesses involved in the local food economy. Restaurants, growers, producers, value-add suppliers, and so on.

It’s a needed addition to our options as local BC citizens trying to support the businesses that we believe in. A central tenet of investing is to invest in companies whose products you use and enjoy. As much as I love Apple and enjoy their products and am proud of their major leaps in environmental sustainability, I don’t know them in the same way that I know my local, organic grocer that I go to every week and can chat with and ask for products that are relevant to me and my family. Or a local butcher, fishery co-operative, raspberry farm, etc…

That’s the best kind of investment.

Originally published on the Co-op Water Cooler.