What makes co-ops great

By Alan Miles

When people ask me why I’ve stayed at Frontier Co-op so long (I’ve worked here more than 30 years), I tell them I enjoy working at a place that shares my values. And underpinning most of those values — such as our environmental and social responsibility, openness, integrity and fairness — is our cooperative business structure. I believe that being owned by our customers has been a key not only to our financial success, but to maintaining our values as well.

And people seem to agree. We recently found that most people — from regular customers to those who have never heard of us — react very positively to our being a co-op and assume we conduct business fairly. Co-ops have a great image with the public. It’s something they’ve earned by, for the most part, reflecting the society-strengthening values of their cooperative owners.

What makes co-ops great

In most ways, cooperatives are like other businesses. Their facilities and equipment are much like those of their competitors and, to be successful, the businesses must be run well. Co-ops are even incorporated in most cases, filing papers with the state as a specially structured corporation. There are bylaws and other necessary legal papers. There is a board of directors that sets policy and oversees the management that runs the day-to-day operations.

But co-ops are different in that they are owned and controlled (through the election of the Board) by members who have direct participation in the business. There are many types of co-ops, but often the participation is as a customer of the co-op — as it is with Frontier Co-op. Members of the co-ops collectively supply the capital the business needs and share its earnings.

A surprise rainstorm made leaving the temporary parking area of our 1983 Member Meeting a cooperative effort.

A surprise rainstorm made leaving the temporary parking area of our 1983 Member Meeting a cooperative effort — exemplifying what the co-op business structure is all about.

A mandate to do the right thing

While I appreciate and advocate the cooperative structure as a fair and effective model for business from a practical standpoint, it’s the indirect effect that the structure has had on the way we do business here at Frontier Co-op that I’m most enthusiastic about.

The idea of co-ops is that they will operate in the shared interests of the members — and that usually extends beyond their financial interests to the underlying values of the business. That’s certainly the case with our co-op. Frontier was founded as a cooperative supplier to retail food co-ops when those stores were at the center of that generation’s idealism about food, the environment and social justice. And today, those values still prevail in the natural food stores and buying clubs that make up our membership.

So in our case, cooperative ownership is a mandate to do the right thing. Our owners are collectively leaders in wholesome food, environmental stewardship and social responsibility — so it’s natural that the business they own should be a leader in those areas as well.

In keeping with the values of Frontier Co-op members, we’ve prioritized the quality of our products, fully disclose ingredients and have developed new organic sources. We’ve made our operations more sustainable with green energy, resource preservation and waste control. And we’ve made it our business to be a helpful participant in the communities our co-op is a part of — whether it’s digging wells for villagers in Madagascar and Sri Lanka or clearing trash from a roadside ditch here in Iowa.

It’s not that we couldn’t or wouldn’t do such things if we were individually owned or a traditional corporation, but being cooperatively owned by tens of thousands of members advocating for doing the right thing definitely reinforces our values and actions. We’re a different business in a different world than thirty years ago, but Frontier Co-op’s commitment to our founding ideals is just as strong.

Frontier Co-op

Born a co-op, still a co-op

We’re proud to be a co-op. We’ve had a number of logos through the years, and “co-op” or “cooperative” has been a part of all of them. Our most recent logo refresh makes our “Co-op” much more visually prominent — and further highlights our long co-op heritage with the subhead “Member owned since 1976.”

Over those decades, our members have continued to support our way of doing business, both by their continued membership and in direct conversations. As a line of ad copy I wrote more than 15 years ago says, “Born a co-op, still a co-op.” And most importantly to me, we’re still a co-op reflecting the values of members who care about food, the environment and people.


Alan MilesAbout the Author: Alan explores ideas and issues related to a sustainable lifestyle — from cooking and culture to social and environmental responsibility. He enjoys Shakespeare, but not as much as college basketball (Go Hawks!). Alan is a family man, liking nothing better than spending time with his wife of 35 years, his four kids and four grandkids.

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