The Economy: Under New Ownership

February 19, 2013
Marjorie Kelly
Publication: 
Yes Magazine

Excerpt:

"Emerging in our time—in largely disconnected experiments across the globe—are the seeds of a different kind of economy. It, too, is built on a foundation of ownership, but of a unique type. The cooperative economy is a large piece of it. But this economy doesn’t rely on a monoculture of design, the way capitalism does. It’s as rich in diversity as a rainforest is in its plethora of species—with commons ownership, municipal ownership, employee ownership, and others. You could even include open-source models like Wikipedia, owned by no one and managed collectively.

These varieties of alternative ownership have yet to be recognized as a single family, in part because they’ve yet to unite under a common name. We might call them generative, for their aim is to generate conditions where our common life can flourish. Generative design isn’t about dominion. It’s about belonging—a sense of belonging to a common whole.

We see this sensibility in a variety of alternatives gaining ground today. New state laws chartering benefit corporations have passed recently in 12 states, and are in the works in 14 more. Benefit corporations—like Patagonia and Seventh Generation—build into their governing documents a commitment to serve not only stockholders but other stakeholders, including employees, the community, and the environment.

Also spreading are social enterprises, which serve a social mission while still functioning as businesses (many of them owned by nonprofits). Employee-owned firms are gaining ground in Spain, Poland, France, Denmark, and Sweden. Still another model is the mission-controlled corporation, exemplified by foundation-owned companies such as Novo Nordisk and Ikea in northern Europe. While publicly traded, these companies safeguard their social purpose by keeping board control in mission-oriented hands.

If there are more kinds of generative ownership than most of us realize, the scale of activity is also larger than we might suppose—particularly in the cooperative economy. In the United States, more than 130 million people are members of a co-op or credit union. More Americans hold membership in a co-op than hold shares in the stock market. Worldwide, cooperatives have close to a billion members. Among the 300 largest cooperative and mutually owned companies worldwide, total revenues approach $2 trillion. If these enterprises were a single nation, its economy would be the 9th largest on earth."

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(Photo: Employees at Equal Exchange, the oldest and largest fair-trade coffee company in the nation. It is also a worker-owned cooperative. Photo by Paul Dunn.)

Read the full Spring 2013 issue of Yes! Magazine on "How Cooperatives Are Driving the New Economy".

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