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Ralph Nader > In the Public Interest > Cooping in Davis

Every so often when I read complaint letters by consumers complaining of mistreatment by sellers, I think of Davis, California -­that gradually remarkable city of 37,000 people located in a farming region near Sacramento.
Davis received some national publicity in the late Seventies because of major successes in energy conservation, including a high percentage of its population riding bicycles and weatherizing their homes. None of this media attention went to Davis’ head; indeed, there now appears to be a critical mass of community consumer cooperative development that is taking off. Davis is co-op city, U.S.A. in more ways than one.

Start with the mayor, 35 year old Ann Evans. She has been a co-op starter, leader and advocate for almost fifteen years. She started a food co-op, became its president, was elected to the Davis City Council and then to the mayor’s office. Along the way Mayor Evans became president of the California Co-operative Federation.

During these years, she has worked at the California State Department of Consumer Affairs. As a local public official, she led Davis to the first Cable TV Co-op in the nation, guided the city to promote co-op housing and establish a revolving fund to help small businesses and co-ops get underway. Her husband, David Thompson, an official of the National Co-operative Business Association, helps advance co-ops in the western part of the U.S.A. He described his town in a recent interview in the magazine, Information:

“Davis possesses a reservoir of idealism. I help channel that energy. The population is open to new ideas, so are co-ops. Our people like to look to the future. They are practical, not dreamers. That union of idealism and practicality is the stuff of which co-ops are made.”

A tour around Davis will reveal both consumer and worker co-ops -­the latter in truckfarming and farmers markets. There are co-op credit unions, a co-op taxi company, a sports goods co-op, day care co-ops, an elementary co-op school, a vegetarian restaurant co-op called The Blue Mango, a co-op memorial society and an assortment of campus co-ops related to the Davis branch of the University of California.

Some of the housing co-ops have built solar homes or attached solar systems to their conventional residences. One such project– Village Homes — is planning to provide low-cost, energy-efficient housing for low income persons and students. There is an artists’ marketing co-op called The Artery launched by artists who needed a space to exhibit and sell their work.

In terms of sales, the largest Davis cooperative is the Davis Food Co-op with sales nearing $3 million a year. The pleasant store, filled with locally purchased fresh foods and providing an area for little children to play while their parents shop, has 30 paid employees and 1,000 active members who work from 2 to 4 hours per months. There is a natural food and healthy diet emphasis in the store.

The most pioneering co-op is the community cable tv system. Unlike other communities, Davis voted to have its subscribers own and control the system instead of some absentee cable conglomerate. With a loan from the Cooperative Bank in Washington, D.C., the system is cablecasting local programming along with the more conventional fare for its 5000 members. As it grows, members will receive patronage refunds along with wide opportunities to help shape this basic community communication facility.

Visitors come from the U.S. and other countries to observe the co-operative economy developing in Davis. They observe the spirit, the ambience, and the growing awareness of the advantages of consumers handing together to see if such intangibles can catch in other towns and cities. Certainly co-ops require a more assertive role by buyers with a broader knowledge of the fruits of such cooperation, not just for the family budget but for the impact on health and safety.

Co-ops have been around in our country for over one hundred years, but they have not transformed the economic countryside. In Europe, co-ops are larger and have a sizable share of the economy’s compared to the U.S. But even there, as our just published report — Making Change: Learning from Europe’s Consumer Cooperatives — observed, co-ops tend to stagnate when they are not given to a larger vision of what a future economy can be like that is consumer-sovereign.

In the nineteenth century, the early cooperative vision in Europe embraced community self-reliance, the abolition of poverty and the enhancement of economic justice by shaping the delivery of housing, food, transportation, energy, health, finance, insurance and other products for the consumers’ benefit. In the present era of giant multinational conglomerates, depersonalization of the marketplace, and technological hazards proliferating from pollution to product, it is time for another look at consumer cooperatives.

(Interested readers may wish to write to Mayor Ann Evans for information on the Davis, California experience.)