Rethinking the cooperative business model with local experts

Documentary A New Economy showcases examples of successful co-op businesses across Canada

From left: The panel included associate professor Bruce Martin, consulting economist Leslie Lax and management consultant Colin O’Leary answering questions on their take on the co-op model. (Juan Cabrejo/The Omega)

The latest films for change screening sponsored by Transition Kamloops showcased the documentary film, A New Economy, and was followed by a panel discussion with local economic experts. The documentary interviewed several cooperative organizations and suggested that the co-op model could be a revolutionary way of doing business globally if utilized more prevalently. The panel included associate professor Bruce Martin, consulting economist Leslie Lax and management consultant Colin O’Leary answering questions on their take on the co-op model and what are the steps required to ensure a more sustainable economy.

For Bruce Martin, the key to a more egalitarian and sustainable economy is to introduce innovative business models like cooperatives.

“I think that the variety of models that we would see in that film represent different business models or ways of creating value or delivering value and capturing value,” he said. “To me, the things that can help our economy do well and promote equality and sustainability are great innovative business models and we have so many examples of those in organizations that would fit into what I call the social enterprise.”

Economist Leslie Lax argues that in order to implement different modes of business management, there needs to be systemic change before being able to do so.

“I think we shouldn’t forget that we operate within a given context and in Canada, that context is a capitalist system that operates with certain institutions,” he said. “If we’re looking to operate different systems or different modes of business management and ownership, but within that context, I think ultimately we’re doomed to fail until we change the systemic social and cultural norms.” 

The analogy of “switching the engines of the plane while still in the air” was used frequently throughout the panel although Lax believes a better analogy would be regarding changing the design of the plane.

For Martin, it’s not a dichotomous choice of having to completely change the economic system or keep it exactly as it is. He believes a better approach is to maintain the current system while implementing elements of corporate social responsibility.

“I don’t think that we have to change the entire system, I also don’t think that we can just continue in the current way, but I do think that there are ways to change what we are doing right now that in our context would be tweaks rather than a complete change to the system,” he said. “I think organizations that follow a profit model are probably the best way for us to produce the goods and services we want most efficiently and can produce it sustainably, environmentally, socially, considerately; it’s just what we do with the profits.”

According to O’Leary, he has noticed a trend in the rising interest in co-ops within the Kamloops community, particularly co-ops around agricultural projects.

“I see many projects come across my desk and I’ve actually noticed a real movement in the interest in co-ops, there are not many people who seem to have a true understanding of the value of that business model,” he said. “The other comment I’ll make with it is I see a pretty strong connection between co-ops and agriculture more than anything and I find it’s typically out of need.”

O’Leary mentions a local example of a company called Urban Matter CCC whom he describes as a hybrid between a cooperative and a corporation. Founded as a Community Contribution Company (CCC), they reinvest 60 per cent of their profits back into community innovation activities and ventures.