When you eat a Sunkist orange or spread Land O’Lakes butter on your toast, you are consuming foods produced by cooperatives. A cooperative is a legal entity with several corporate features, such as limited liability, an unlimited life span, an elected board of directors, and an administrative staff. Member-owners pay annual fees to the cooperative and share in the profits, which are distributed to members in proportion to their contributions. Because they do not retain any profits, cooperatives are not subject to taxes.
There are currently 2.6 million cooperatives with one billion members employing more than 12.5 million employees in more than 145 countries worldwide.4 Cooperatives operate in every industry, including agriculture, childcare, energy, financial services, food retailing and distribution, health care, insurance, housing, purchasing and shared services, and telecommunications, among others. They range in size from large enterprises such as Fortune 500 companies to small local storefronts and fall into four distinct categories: consumer, producer, worker, and purchasing/shared services.
Cooperatives are autonomous businesses owned and democratically controlled by their members—the people who buy their goods or use their services—not by investors. Unlike investor-owned businesses, cooperatives are organized solely to meet the needs of the member-owners, not to accumulate capital for investors. As democratically controlled businesses, many cooperatives practice the principle of “one member, one vote,” providing members with equal control over the cooperative.
There are two types of cooperatives. Buyer cooperatives combine members’ purchasing power. Pooling buying power and buying in volume increases purchasing power and efficiency, resulting in lower prices. At the end of the year, members get shares of the profits based on how much they bought. Obtaining discounts to lower costs gives the corner Ace Hardware store the chance to survive against retailing giants such as Home Depot Inc. and Lowe’s.
Founded in 1924, Ace Hardware is one of the nation’s largest cooperatives and is wholly owned by its independent hardware retailer members in stores spanning all 50 states and 70 countries. In August 2017, Ace opened its 5,000th store. In 2017, the company reported its revenues in the second quarter were $1.5 billion, which was an increase of 4.6 percent from 2016’s second quarter. The net income for the second quarter of 2017 was $51.1 million.5
Seller cooperatives are popular in agriculture, wherein individual producers join to compete more effectively with large producers. Member dues support market development, national advertising, and other business activities. In addition to Sunkist and Land O’Lakes, other familiar cooperatives are Calavo (avocados), Ocean Spray (cranberries and juices), and Blue Diamond (nuts). CHS Inc., the largest cooperative in the United States, sells energy, supply, food, and grain.
Advantages & Restrictions
Cooperatives empower people to improve their quality of life and enhance their economic opportunities through self-help. Throughout the world, cooperatives are providing members with credit and financial services, energy, consumer goods, affordable housing, telecommunications, and other services that would not otherwise be available to them. There are several principles that cooperatives must follow, according to San Luis Valley REC, International Co-operative Alliance, and Daman Prakash, author of The Principles of Cooperation. They include (1) open membership, which means that cooperatives are open to all people to use its services; (2) democratic member control, which means that organizations are controlled by their members; (3) members’ economic participation, which means that members contribute equally to the capital of the cooperative; (4) autonomy, which means cooperatives are self-help organizations controlled by their members; and (5) education and training, which means that cooperatives provide education and training for their members while also electing representatives, managers, and employees.6