We are familiar with the qualities of contemporary co-ops, but where and why did these organizations begin?
Who would have thought that the movement began in the mid 1800s at a quaint little store on Toad Lane in Rochdale, England.
So this is where it all began. The first co-operators were a group of industrial weavers called the Rochdale Pioneers. They banded together as the mechanization of the Industrial Revolution began to lead skilled workers and artisans down a bleak economic path. In 1884 they opened the first co-op, with the goal of obtaining items that they would not otherwise be able to afford. The co-op’s inventory expanded quickly, and during the next ten years over 1,000 co-ops opened throughout England.
To regulate their new organization, the Pioneers drafted the Rochdale Principles. Today these principles serve as the ideological foundation of co-ops worldwide. Check out revisions to the Co-operative Principles here: http://www.ica.coop/coop/principles-revisions.html
The most powerful idea that I took from these 19th century Englishmen and women is the right to personal choice. On the surface, a trip to the supermarket provides the illusion of choice: thirty different types of cereal, five brands of eggs, etc. But our pick among brands is ultimately determined by what the supermarket chooses to stock on the shelves (and the supermarkets selection is provided by a whole slew of economic factors) . The business of selling packaged food and produce has become too large to consider the request or suggestion of a few customers.
A co-op begins with empty shelves, and these shelves are filled with the needs and requests of its members. Currently, I have more affordable, consistent access to an under-ripened, flavorless tomato picked thousands of miles away than a tomato grown in the farm fields of the Lehigh Valley. I would like to buy a local tomato within walking distance from my house, and I suspect that my request would be heard by the Bethlehem Food Co-Op.