Saturday, April 9, 2011

Best of Women: Co-operation Makes It Happen

Achievement in Economics: Sara Oliver and Sara Golling
Sara Oliver and Sara Golling aren't household names, but over the last forty years, they've influenced scores of Canadians and helped outfit thousands of mountaineers, college kids, weekend warriors, and adorable little kids. As part of the founding members of Mountain Equipment Co-op (celebrating 40 years in business this year, what what?), they've brought a different model of shopping to the Canadian family, and in the process, helped shape who we are as consumers.

Mountain Equipment Co-op (MEC for short, and the contention over whether it's "Em Eee Cee" or "Meck" has divided families and ruined friendships) was originally envisioned as a knock-off of REI, an American outdoor equipment provider. According to the ridiculously endearing cartoon on their website, MEC was designed to serve the 1970s Vancouver hippies: the cartoon features bebraided young ladies and scraggly-bearded young men, asking, "Hey, why don't we start a co-op just like REI?" Forty years later, MEC has come into its own. Membership exceeds 3 million (in a country with 30 million residents, that's damned impressive), they made more than a quarter-billion dollars last year, and they've built eco-friendly outposts from coast to coast. They're also a super-fun way to kill a couple hours on a weekend; go in, get some technical clothes (dress shirts that dry really fast! Awesome for both mountain biking and nervous interactions with your boss!), try on sunglasses, maybe watch some of the doofs on the climbing wall, and grab a new carabiner for you keys. Sweet!

I rarely write about co-ops for the same reasons I don't write about my family or mention my work on this site: I don't want to shit where I eat. I've lived in a student housing co-op for the past seven years, and being a member has deeply influenced the way I feel about myself as a person. Co-ops are notable because they give members democratic control over their organization, a "perk" lacking in most other business models. They empower members to spend the co-op's money in ways that best suit them. My housing co-op, for example, has a full-time maintenance crew; free laundry for the membership; dining halls and house food plans; and front porches and backyards in the heart of downtown Toronto.

There are lots of different types of co-ops: some, like MEC, are consumer co-ops who negotiate on a member's behalf with suppliers and give more bang for your buying buck. Worker co-ops allow employees of a company to direct its growth, instead of a top-down/boss-only approach. Naomi Klein gives worker co-ops a lot of love in her book The Shock Doctrine: apparently, after a lot of political and economic tumult, worker co-ops have a balm-like effect on economies. It was under the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation's rule in Saskatchewan in the '40s that the Canadian health care system took its first form. Oh, and it's my secret dream to run a restaurant co-op like The Sleepless Goat in Kingston. Secret! Shh!

I know my co-op friends might get starry-eyed for this post while the rest of the world yawns and scratches itself. I get mushy about co-ops because I think they work. So many folks feel powerless and used up by the end of the day. When I think about the jobs I've had, the ones where I worked hardest and felt best about myself have been the ones where I feel proud of what I do. Even if it's waiting tables, if my fellow employees and my bosses and I are all on the same team, it's a good job. I've watched friends endure crappy living arrangements - "roommate" means you bear the brunt of dealing with the issue, including the knowledge that you helped select the source of your misery. But co-ops, with their open membership policies, absolve you of that. Plus, almost every medium to large co-op I've heard of has someone on staff who helps wrangle the inter-member conflict.

In any case, I would argue that most Canadians have some contact with a co-op. Credit unions are wildly popular in Quebec, and the farming industry still has a number of co-operatives, ranging in size from smallish to gargantuan. MEC helped make co-ops part of Canada's economic landscape. And co-ops are part of a thriving democracy - along with unions, they give people the power to govern themselves where they live, buy, work and play. So thanks, MEC. Thanks, Oliver and Golling. Yours in co-operation!

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