GM's Corner: Cooperatives Can Help Capitalism Work Better For Everyone

Jon Roesser, Weavers Way General Manager

Folks, it appears that capitalism is in trouble. A Pew Research poll this summer found that 65% of Americans still have a favorable opinion of capitalism, but that’s not too great. And the number of Americans with a favorable opinion of socialism, 42%, is on the rise. Young people are decreasingly convinced that capitalism is all their elders have told them it’s cracked up to be.

Capitalism’s reckoning with public sentiment is a long time coming. When the Berlin Wall came down, it signaled the triumph of the free-market, capitalist West over the state-controlled, communist East. Even communist regimes like China and Vietnam embraced the free-market model as the best path forward for economic prosperity.

Things changed in the wake of the 2008 Great Recession. Confidence in free markets was shaken. The recovery was uneven. The gap between haves and have-nots has widened. Many are convinced that capitalism only really works for the well-connected wealthy elite. In China and elsewhere, increasing economic prosperity has not reduced the government’s ability to operate totalitarian states.

Responding to capitalism’s growing image problem, in August the Business Roundtable, an association of CEOs from the big American corporate galoots, put out a statement saying that corporations must move away from their focus on “shareholder primacy,” and instead commit to benefiting “all stakeholders – customers, employees, suppliers, communities and shareholders.”

Jamie Dimon, CEO of J.P. Morgan, said the statement showed the “business community’s unwavering commitment to continue to push for an economy that serves all Americans.” Alex Gorsky, CEO of Johnson & Johnson, said the statement “affirms the essential role corporations can play in improving our society.”

Well. Guys like Dimon (who “earned” $33 million in 2018) and Gorsky ($21 million), have a vested interest in burnishing capitalism’s image. Sensing restlessness among the masses, the Business Roundtable has (quite wisely) thrown itself into full-scale damage control mode. One would be right to be suspicious of their motives and skeptical of their willingness to really change.

Others have proposed remedies, too. As they jockey for attention, the candidates in the Democrat primary all offer cures for what ills capitalism. Elizabeth Warren would penalize big firms that fail to take into account the interests of their employees and their communities. Bernie Sanders would give workers an ownership stake in the companies for which they toil. Even Joe Biden, who takes a more moderate stance on this as he does on most things, wants to “save” capitalism by “reordering” it, mostly by sniffing out cronyism and improper corporate connections.

Even the Pope has chimed in. While he’s called business a “noble profession,” he’s said that “capitalism gives a moral cloak to inequality.” Next March he is convening a summit in Assisi that will explore alternatives to the free-market capitalist system. And it’s a good bet that during this summit, the subject of co-ops will come up.

Contrary to what some people think, here at the Co-op we are not communists. Our cooperative ownership model doesn’t change the fact that Weavers Way is a business, subject to market forces of supply and demand, able to capitalize on our competitive differentiators, and susceptible to changing economic conditions.

Sit in on one of our management meetings and you’ll hear us talk about things like identifying new revenue streams, growing our market share, and increasing our brand awareness.

To thrive in the ferociously competitive grocery marketplace, we must get the fundamentals right: superior food, sparkling customer service, a pleasant shopping environment, and competitive prices. Grocers who fail to differentiate themselves from the competition won’t last long. Remember Super Fresh?

But while the Co-op is a business, our ownership structure allows us to behave in a way other businesses cannot. Owned by our members and governed by their elected representatives, Weavers Way operates as a business, but one that is mission driven. That mission is to operate the Co-op as a triple bottom line business: people, planet, profit.

Because our owners are not seeking a financial return on their investment, so long as we operate Weavers Way in a fiscally responsible way, we fulfill our business’s financial bottom line. This allows us to elevate our other two bottom lines in a way our for-profit competitors simply cannot. So we can be more careful in ensuring our business decisions make not only good financial sense, but are beneficial to our community and not harmful to the planet.

Big, for-profit companies can crow all they want about being responsible corporate citizens, but their allegiance to Wall Street must necessarily come first.

As people sour on the dog-eat-dog, amoral (and increasingly immoral) unfettered capitalist system that benefits too few and leaves too many behind, Weavers Way’s cooperative model offers the fairer, more equitable, more sustainable form of capitalism that more and more people crave.

See you around the Co-op.