Sustainability through Cooperation

While the concept of sustainability can mean different things to different audiences, the cooperative business model builds sustainable practices into the fabric of businesses from agriculture to food cooperatives to credit providers. The Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) organization include concepts of productivity, environmental stewardship, profitability, and quality of life in the way they think about sustainability. The examples shared here from cooperatives across industries, geographies, and growth stages demonstrate how sustainability is a part of being a co-op.

Environmental Stewardship

In early 2020, Ocean Spray, a farmer-owned cooperative of cranberry growers across the United States, Canada, and Chile, announced that 100% of the cranberries it used in products from juices to snacks to fresh fruit were sustainably grown, according to the Sustainable Agriculture Initiative Platform’s (SAI Platform) Farm Sustainability Assessment. The SAI Platform defines sustainable agriculture as the “efficient production of safe, high- quality agricultural products in a way that protects and improves the natural environment, the social and economic conditions of farmers and their communities, and safeguards the health and welfare of all farmed species.”

Practices like water efficiency technologies, nutrient management practices, and more help ensure that cranberry production enhances the quality of natural resources. Ocean Spray shared that, on average, every acre of cranberry bog conserves 5.5 acres of natural lands for native plants and wildlife.

Concern for Community

Social aspects of sustainability focus on promoting resilience and well-being for individuals and communities. The National Council of Farm Cooperatives (NCFC) adopted an approach to sustainability that includes community well-being, including “conducting our businesses responsibly, maintaining safe, healthy and respectful workplaces for our employees, and fostering vibrant rural communities.” Co-op regulars will recognize in these concepts one of the principles of the cooperative model – concern for community. The concept of community engagement is an internationally recognized and celebrated principle of the cooperative model. Not only are co-ops rooted in community through their member-owned structure, but they also support their communities in ways that are as diverse as the co-op community across the U.S. For example, in Ohio, three cooperatives founded Fueling the Cure, an effort to promote cancer research and prevention. By donating $1 for every delivery stop of bulk propane purchased through their cooperatives, the group has now donated over $1.5 million to help find a cure for cancer.

Economic Viability

For an enterprise to be sustainable, it must be economically viable over the long term. Cooperatives are no exception. But cooperatives also have characteristics that ensure that their economic viability spreads beyond the co-op itself to its member-owners. One of the hallmarks of the cooperative business model is that member-owners share in the benefits of the business, including the profits or surplus. Cooperatives share profits based on member-owners’ use of the business rather than their investment in the enterprise. This is known as patronage. Patronage refunds that are returned to member-owners can be reinvested in their farms, businesses, or homes. For example, in early 2020, Farm Credit Mid-America, a lender in the Farm Credit system serving Ohio, Kentucky, Indiana, and Tennessee, announced that it would return $186 million in patronage to customer-members. In 2019, the co-op returned $146 million to customer members.

Watch “Cooperating for Sustainable Development”

In November 2020, the CFAES Center for Cooperatives teamed up with the OSU School of Environment and Natural Resources Environmental Professionals Network and the OSU Sustainability Institute to host “Cooperating for Sustainable Development.” The webinar was a conversation with Dr. Kip Curtis and founding members of the Richland Gro-Op cooperative (RGO), Matthew Stanfield, and Walt Bonham. RGO is a marketing co-op supporting new growers in Richland County, Ohio, in their goals to grow new farmers and build a more sustainable and just food system in their community. The CFAES Center for Cooperatives team has supported the development of RGO since 2018. You can view the video of the conversation below with introductory comments from special guests Dr. Ryan Schmiesing, Vice Provost for Outreach and Engagement at The Ohio State University, Dr. Cathann Kress, Vice President for Agricultural Administration and Dean of The Ohio State University College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences, and Doug O’Brien, President, and CEO of the National Cooperative Business Association CLUSA International.

Cooperatives interested in developing a comprehensive sustainability program, or refreshing an existing program, can use the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives’ Field Guild for Farmer Cooperative Sustainability Programs for guidance.

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