Co-operative Study Tours to Share Experiences with Co-operatives around the World
The year 2012 marks the International Year of Cooperatives, declared by the United Nations. Various activities have been held with the international theme of “Cooperative Enterprises Build a Better World.” The Seikatsu Club Consumers Co-operative Union (SCCCU) organized three "co-operative study tours" to visit co-operatives in different countries and learn from the contributions they have made to their local communities. The first trip in the series consisted of visits to co-operatives in the United States, which took place from August 21 to 27. Three board members, two directors, and a staff member of the SCCCU participated in the trip. They met cooperators who actually work to “build a better world” (posted on November 6).
A city reborn through co-operative businesses: Cleveland
The first destination was Cleveland, Ohio, where heavy industry once flourished and many millionaires like Rockefeller lived. The city now suffers unemployment and poverty after the decline of industry and a 50% decrease in population. The Evergreen Cooperatives, launched in 2009, are owned by workers and create green businesses. The workers participate in investment and decision making of the co-operatives as well as patronizing their services.
The Evergreen Cooperatives currently have three businesses – the Evergreen Cooperative Laundry, the Evergreen Energy Solutions, and the Green City Growers Cooperative. The Evergreen Cooperative Laundry is a healthcare bed linen laundry. Evergreen Energy Solutions designs, installs, and develops solar panel arrays. Green City Growers Cooperative operates leafy greens hydroponic greenhouses. Each co-operative employs about 20 workers.
“Ohio State buys US$2.8 billion of food from distant states like California every year.” Ms. Hitomi Igarashi, Vice-chairperson of the Board of Directors of the Seikatsu Club Consumers’ Co-operative Kanagawa and a member of the Insurance Coverage Policy Committee of the Seikatsu Club Insurance Co-operative Unions related her experience from the visit to the Evergreen Cooperatives as follows. “I learned that the Evergreen Cooperatives intend to create 5,000 jobs in 10-15 years by facilitating local supply and demand, and creating jobs and work environments. I hear that when they prepared to launch the co-operatives, they carried out research on co-operatives around the world including the Seikatsu Club.”
Creating what we need thorough co-operatives: Iowa
At the second destination, Iowa, the Seikatsu Club delegation first visited a rural electric co-operative. Back in the 1930s, nine out of ten rural homes had no electricity. Farmers and small villagers started rural electric co-operatives in order to be supplied with electricity. The delegation visited the Linn County Rural Electric Cooperative and listened to presentations by the Central Electric Power Cooperative (generation and transmission co-operative), the Linn County Rural Electric Cooperative (distribution co-operative), the Iowa Association of Electric Cooperatives, and the Iowa Area Development Group, which is sponsored by the electric co-operatives and works for the economic development of the area. In the same way as in Japan, the United States depends on nuclear energy, oil and coal for power generation. However, consumers are increasingly demanding renewable energy. “When we think about the future of energy policy in Japan, the example of the United States, where generation and distribution are separated, can serve as a useful reference,” says Mr. Takayuki Watanabe, the Managing Director of SCCCU.
In Iowa, the delegation also visited two stores run by the New Pioneer Food Coop. They sell mainly organic food including fruits and vegetables grown in Iowa. They also sell Iowa beef, pork and chicken raised without using growth hormone and antibiotics. The Food Coop has educational programs at local schools and helps grow vegetables. It tells children about the importance of soil and that excellent crops can be grown without using genetic engineering.
“I was impressed by the way the New Pioneer Food Coop works to promote locally produced food,” says Ms. Momoko Toda, a member of the Seikatsu Club Liaison Committee on GM food. “Their work is all community based and helps local development. When I visited Wal-mart later, I was shocked to see beverages and confectionery with seemingly poisonous colorings. Then I realized how important it was to have food coops in the neighborhood,” continued Ms. Toda.
The National Cooperative Grocers Association (NCGA) has its head office not far from the New Pioneer Food Coop. NGCA works to promote food coops in the United States under the brand name of “Stronger Together.” It also works to lobby the government in favor of the mandatory labeling of genetically modified (GM) food.
“It was great to see people in the United States who oppose GM food and are working to change the food labeling system,” says Ms. Kyoko Okamoto, the Chairperson of the Board of Directors, 23-ku South Seikatsu Club Consumers’ Co-operative.
It is relatively unknown that the United States is a major co-operative country. The delegation actually saw some of the examples of community-based job creation, energy solutions, and local food production and distribution. The Seikatsu Club works in similar fields and these examples are one of the best sources for innovative ideas.
SCCCU organized two more co-operative tours to Australia (November) and Europe (December), when members of the Seikatsu Club will visit co-operatives in these areas. They will witness more examples of co-operatives “building a better world.” After the three tours, SCCCU is planning to publish a report on the accomplishments of the tours.