Cooperatives are an established community wealth-building strategy that can be found in many economic sectors, including banking (credit unions), agriculture, electricity generation and transmission, telecommunications, housing, and child care. In every case, cooperatives operate on the basis of the core democratic principle of "one person, one vote." The top 100 U.S. co-ops alone have more than $150 billion in sales each year. Areas of recent growth include natural food groceries, purchasing cooperatives, and worker cooperatives.
What is a co-op? A cooperative can be any business that is governed on the principle of one member, one vote. In other words, unlike a stock corporation, everyone makes an equal investment in purchasing shares and therefore has an equal say. Although antecedents exist, including a mutual fire insurance company established by Benjamin Franklin in 1752 that continues to operate in Philadelphia to this day, the first modern cooperative was a retail co-op founded by 28 people in Rochdale, England in 1844. Originally selling butter, sugar, flour, oatmeal, and tallow candles, business expanded rapidly in scope and scale as the co-op succeeded in elevating food standards — rejecting then-common tactics such as watering down milk. By 1880, Rochdale had over 10,000 members and more than 500,000 people had joined food co-ops in Britain; by 1900, British food co-op membership totaled 1.7 million.
A University of Wisconsin Center for Cooperatives' study completed in 2011, Research on the Economic Impact of Cooperatives, states that 350 million Americans hold memberships in cooperatives. Even this large number fails to encompass the scope of cooperatives, large and small, that are found throughout America in a number of different sectors including agriculture, electricity, telecommunications, health care, housing, retail and child care, to name but a few.
Additional statistics regarding the cooperative sector are in the table below.
U.S. Cooperative Sector: Additional Statistics
|Total number of cooperatives, 2011||29,284|
|Total co-op sector revenues, 2011||$652 billion|
|Electricity co-op members, 2010||42 million|
|Telecommunications (telephone) co-op members, 2005||1.9 million|
|Credit union members, 2012||92.5 million|
|Credit union assets, 2012||$1.001 trillion|
|Total number of credit unions, 2012||7,165|
|Estimated number of purchasing cooperatives, 1996||50|
|Current estimated number of purchasing cooperatives, 2009||724|
|Worker co-op revenues, 2009||$219.24 million|
|Consumer grocery cooperative sales, 2007||$2.1 billion|
|Consumer grocery cooperative members, 2007||487,000|
|Number of members of REI co-op, 2011||4.7 million|