Co-ops and social enterprises operate in every sector of the economy from forestry and fisheries to health care, construction, transportation, retail, processing, housing, tourism, and more. They are strongest in rural communities, particularly in the local food and agricultural sector with one in four co-ops in Canada being food-related co-ops. In New Brunswick, these co-ops have a very long history and indeed the oldest ongoing agricultural co-op in the entire world is located in right in Sussex! Established by a group of farmers in 1871, the Sussex Co-op is still operating and employing local people 178 years later.
Co-ops and social enterprises play a critical role in rural communities in New Brunswick as they must be constantly innovative and creative to address the myriad of challenges they face with aging populations, out-migration, and increasing global competition. Co-ops and social enterprises provide a structure and business model that allows groups of people to pool their resources and invest in locally-owned enterprises that create jobs and provide products or services that would otherwise not be available in their community as companies whose interests are purely profit-driven rarely set up in small towns and villages.
For co-ops and social enterprises, as long as the business is financially sustainable and will create jobs or otherwise strengthen the local community, it is a viable option. That is not to say that they don’t strive to give an ROI to shareholders like any other business, as they most definitely do. However, the fundamental principles upon which co-ops and social enterprises are built – concern for the community, member economic participation, education and training, and democratic member control – means that people, and not just profits, control the enterprise.
When people own a business they are much more likely to support it. In co-ops and social enterprises, a huge part of their success is based on the fact that members have a say in the governance and major decisions, while leaving operational details to staff. This keeps the co-op closely connected and responsive to its customers’ wants and needs. When your customers are your owners, you have to be good!