by Rob Miller, CEO of VSECU Imagine a strategy that could transform a country’s poorest regional economy into one of great wealth and prosperity. An approach that could build a community that produces more than 9 percent of that country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP), 12 percent of its exports, and 30 percent of its patents, while only comprising 7 percent of its population. This scenario is no fantasy. It’s the realty in Emilia Romagna, Italy. What’s their secret? A thriving cooperative economy. Their success is largely attributed to the region’s commitment to building co-ops and employee-owned firms since 1950. In fact, co-ops now account for 30 percent of Emilia Romagna’s GDP.
The region is just one of many examples, from Spain to Cleveland, that demonstrate how a thriving cooperative economy can spur economic and community development. Co-ops are certainly not a new phenomenon – the first was established in 1844. Nor do they offer a “magic bullet” to fix all economic woes. But as Vermont continues to work to strengthen its economy, stabilize our population, and create more opportunity for Vermonters, it is important to recognize the value of cooperatives as an essential element of economic and community development. With greater emphasis on the cooperative economy, we can work together to support a sustainable, locally-owned, and locally-controlled business sector, contributing to vibrant local communities that support all Vermonters.
This is why VSECU is committed to fostering a cooperative economy in Vermont. As a member-owned co-op and credit union for everyone in our state, we are dedicated to the Seven Cooperative Principles that guide co-ops across the world. These principles focus on social good, community building, member empowerment, democratic management, and – above all – cooperation. Our most recent initiative Co-op Capital, which provides equity investments to help start new cooperative enterprises and grow established cooperative businesses, illustrates our commitment to this movement.
The good news is that cooperatives and employee-owned firms already play an important role in our communities, with more than 130 cooperative organizations currently operating in the state, according to a new census from the Cooperative Development Institute. The Association of Vermont Credit Unions reports that 54 percent of Vermonters belong to at least one cooperative credit union. Many Vermonters may support cooperatives without even realizing it, including companies such as Ace Hardware, Ocean Spray and REI; and locally, Cabot Creamery, Mad River Glen Ski Area, and PT-360.
Our existing cooperative economy offers a great foundation. Yet when you consider the value co-ops add to local economies, the potential impact of growing this sector is significant. As local businesses, co-ops provide an attractive economic multiplier effect. Approximately 48 percent of money spent at local businesses is recirculated within the local community, compared to only 14 percent from national businesses. Cooperatives also bring stability by offering stronger success rates than traditional businesses. Data from the World Council of Credit Unions found that within five years of opening, 90 percent of cooperatives were still in operation versus 3-5 percent of non-cooperative businesses.
Co-op profits are more equitably distributed across a broader ownership base than traditional businesses. And with democratic, local control, cooperatives are also more likely to stay in the region for the long term. Beyond economic value, community development and support are part of the cooperative DNA – a set of inherent characteristics that speak to our Vermont values and further benefit our communities.
At VSECU, we believe that good things happen when people come together. Nothing exemplifies that sentiment more than the cooperative movement. We see this within our own credit union infrastructure, where member-owners come together for the mutual benefit of each other, and externally, where we leverage our cooperative spirit to empower greater prosperity for Vermont. We are committed to supporting external growth in this sector of the economy through initiatives like Co-op Capital, along with efforts to fuel growth for privately-owned, local business through our investment in equity crowdfunding platform Milk Money, and support of Bennington’s co-working space, The Lighting Jar.
But we are all in this together. Local economies thrive when local businesses see strong local support – whether owned privately, by employees, or by cooperative members. We all play a role in building a diverse and dynamic local economy.
So go local! Support your local businesses. Discover and join a co-op. More broadly, let’s work together to strengthen our economy for all Vermonters.
Rob Miller, a resident of Shelburne, is CEO of VSECU. He is a former Commissioner of the Vermont Department of Economic Development and currently serves on the boards of the Vermont Center for Emerging Technologies, Capstone Community Action and the Energy Action Network.
*VSECU sponsored the Cooperative Development Institute’s Cooperative Census referenced in this article, along with Cabot Creamery and the Association of Vermont Credit Unions.