Cooperatives can be used to accomplish almost any purpose: to fulfill a need, obtain a product or service, produce a product or service, or secure employment. Most co-ops are focused on one of these activities, but many of them address a combination of these activities.
Around the world, co-ops operate in all sectors of the economy, from agricultural and fishery co-ops to food co-ops, industrial manufacturing to financial services, health care to the arts. From small-scale community co-ops to multimillion dollar enterprises, co-ops include almost 1 billion members and employ 100 million women and men (more than multinational corporations).
What makes a co-op unique is that it is owned and democratically governed by its members, the people who use its products or services, or are employed by the business. The purpose of the enterprise it to not to accumulate profit for investors, but to meet the goals and aspirations of its members. For this reason, any surplus generated by a co-op is reinvested in the business or returned to the members based on their use of its services. Membership in the co-op is obtained through the purchase of a member share in the business, which does not change in value (in contrast to publicly traded corporations) and entitles the member to one vote in matters that come before the members.
In many countries, co-ops are recongnized by the government for their unique contribution to community development. The Italian Constitution, for example, “acknowledges the social function of co-operation as a form of mutual aid devoid of all private speculative intent.” In the United States, the federal government has promoted the co-operative business model in many areas of the economy, including rural electricity and telecommunications,housing and farming. The US Department of Agriculture defines a co-op as a “user-owned, user-controlled business that distributes benefits on the basis of use.”
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