E&M author Maria Taskinen shares her thoughts on cooperatives and an experience with a local cooperative supermarket in Brussels.

It is true that today businesses are arguably acknowledging more of the finite resources of our planet than ever before. Increased consumer awareness, investors’ demands for sufficient environmental, social, and governance (ESG) performance and stricter environmental and social regulations are making businesses across Europe pay closer attention to their corporate social responsibilities (CSRs) and how to be more sustainable. 

Yet, the pressing need for sustainable and responsible business practices is still too often overshadowed by the pursuit of profit. Companies following today’s mainstream business model, Investor-Owned Firm (IOF), continue making decisions with the principle that a company’s ultimate aim is to maximise the shareholders’ returns of investments. Despite the apparent attention in CSRs, it seems that ultimately the IOF structure is always bound to lead to attempts of profit maximisation with social and/or environmental expenses.

Of course, the discussion of alternative economic systems and business models is something that has been going on already for quite some time. For instance, this summer, I read ‘Take Back the Economy: An Ethical Guide to Transforming our Communities’ by J. K. Gibson-Graham, Jenny Cameron and Stephen Healy, published in 2013, which discusses how to think about economies beyond profit with humans and the planet at the center of the focus. Also, Kate Raworth’s world-famous ‘Doughnut Economy’ concept, has already been first developed in 2012, with her 2017 book, ’Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st-Century Economist’, elaborating the concept further. 

BEES coop in north of Brussels.

One of the alternative business models to IOFs is co-operatives, where equal ownership and decision-making power are in the hands of their members, as opposed to the investors or shareholders. They normally work on a voluntary basis and with an open membership as autonomous actors. This autumn, I had a chance to familiarise myself with one after moving to Brussels, for a short-term internship. My new flatmate, sharing insights about the city and our neighborhood, brought to my attention a local supermarket close to our house, BEES coop. 

BEES coop is a cooperative, located in the north of Brussels. It’s a supermarket, run by and for its members, with every member cooperating with and participating in the organisation’s work in three ways. Members engage by becoming co-owners of the cooperation through subscribing with a fee, which allows them to make decisions relating to the organisation and the future direction of the supermarket. By joining the co-operative, members also commit to work at the supermarket for 3 hours per month in varying tasks. Finally, once subscribed and committed to work, the co-operator gets access to shop at the supermarket which exclusively is open for them. The products in the supermarket aim for high quality, give priority to sustainable products from fair trade, and aim to have affordable prices so that the store remains accessible to as many people as possible interested in joining. 

As a concept, I had not been too familiar with cooperatives before, and therefore, attracted by the thought of this supermarket, I joined my flatmate for an info session of new members at the store. It was fascinating to hear about the organisation from its founding members. Founded in 2014, the idea behind the shop had been to establish a store that combats the negative effects that the industrial food-processing sector has on the environment as well as on the working conditions of the producers. To materialise the idea, the group had taken inspiration from other cooperative supermarkets, such as “Park Slope Food Coop” in New York and “La Louve” in Paris. 

The most attractive thing about the BEES coop, is indeed that its purpose is not to grow or to make profit. Throughout the info session, the members of the cooperative emphasised that the store can only function with an equilibrium between people working at the store and the people shopping at the store. Accepting new interested customers – while on paper would perhaps seem flattering and welcomed – was not an option, mainly since by doing so, there would not be enough products left for the members working at the store. The idea really revolved around the BEES coop community which functioned as the center point for action:  the community works for each other to benefit from the common project together. 

For all the people that had attended the info session, the members promised a free trial period of one month to shop at the store before making the final decision of joining or not. During the month, I shopped at the store actively and was delighted by the variety and quality of products available. I could also really sense the community spirit of the store through how workers and shoppers greeted, helped and treated each other. The people knew each other and stopped to have a conversation together. It was different from your average “Carrefour or Albert Heijn shopping”, and felt instantly more communal. Also in terms of prices, I noticed that my groceries cost the same amount as in a regular supermarket – even less in some cases. Knowing that the products at BEES coop were more ethically and sustainably produced and packaged than elsewhere, this was undoubtedly a huge plus for me.

Unfortunately, given that I’m only staying in Brussels for such a little time (for now), it did not make sense for me to commit and subscribe to BEES coop as a full member. However, the short experience was enough to spark enthusiasm in cooperative communities, and I am sure to search my way for similar initiatives wherever I will be living next. Thus with this, I want to encourage anyone else interested in alternative economic activities, to seek out cooperative action in your neighborhood, city or even region. It might just be as inspiring and heartwarming as it was for me this autumn. 

All pictures taken by the author.

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    Originally from Helsinki, Maria Taskinen is currently based in Amsterdam where she is finishing her studies in Political Science. She enjoys long conversations and learning about different perspectives. While professionally interested in EU and environmental policy she sometimes considers taking another path and becoming a documentarist.

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