Unlike their less active counterparts in the United States, consumer cooperatives in Switzerland are engaged in a fast and broadening growth of services for consumer well-being. The largest such cooperative is the Federation of Migros Cooperatives with annual sales over $1.2 billion and a membership exceeding 900,000.
In many ways the Migros story has remarkable relevance to the drive for greater consumer value and protection in this country. It was started 35 years ago by Gottlieb Duttweiler, a wealthy businessman, who was repelled by the monopolistic structure of the Swiss economy and the absence of a pervasive consumer voice in marketplace decisions. His motto was: “The most reliable protection for the consumer is active competition in the marketplace.” And he was determined to advance consumer justice by organizing consumers at the retail level through diversified cooperatives.
The early years of Migros were ones of constant struggle against monopolies which wanted to restrict their supplies or harass it out of business. Duttweiler was not to be so restrained. When he could not purchase a certain brand of soap from the Swiss supplier, he went to New York and filled/ ship with the same soap from the American manufacturer.
Whenever he observed a blocked supply route to Migros cooperatives, he either overcame it or set up cooperative processing plants or distributors.
Presently, Migros co-ops account for about 10% of the retail sales in Switzerland and 25% of the food retail business. It is the largest domestic economic enterprise in the country.
Swiss consumers generally agree that Migros food markets sell at the lowest prices and maintain a consistent quality. There is unit pricing, perishable dating and ingredient disclosure. But the attraction to consumers of the Migros idea is more extensive.
For example, Migros co-ops do not sell anything that “sells.” Alcohol and tobacco products are not sold. A recent membership vote reaffirmed the ban on cigaretts and related products by a 2 to 1 majority. The stores do not sell mineral water (a popular item) in plastic or one-way bottles for environmental reasons. Glass bottles are used instead. The Migros gasoline co-ops introduced low lead gasoline. Shipments between Migros processors, distributors and retail outlets are mostly handled by rail to reduce pollution.
The Migros cooperative “subeconomy” also illustrates the benefits consumers can derive from a sizable retail cash flow. There are Migros banks,life and auto insurance services, restaurants, mobile do-it-yourself units renting tools and extending knowhow for repairs, daily and weekly newspapers, organic fertilizer, poultry growing and bakery firms, book and record clubs, travel agencies and packaging plants.
There are testing laboratories to determine quality control of products that Migros purchases for its consumer-members. These testing procedures are directed toward uncovering fraud, filth, lack of nutrition, pesticides and, lately, ecological effects. Migros is sharply critical of the petroleum and chemical industries for inadequate research about disposal of packaging materials made of plastics. And toward government, there is even a Migros “Bureau for the Prevention of Bureaucratic Abuses,” to handle citizen complaints such as social security grievances.
Members of these co-ops also have access to a wide range of educational and cultural services. Artistic exhibitions, concerts, adult education classes, athletic events involve the people as participants and not just as spectators.
A consumer cooperative enterprise should be guided by its consumer members. Migros members have recently indicated a majority interest in having their co-op enter the cooperative housing financing area. This is now being done.
Involvement of the 900,000 Migros members in the policy determination of the various enterprises could be much greater. But consumers in the United States, nevertheless, can learn many new ideas from Migros in advancing consumer interests and expanding the existing consumer cooperative movement in this country.