WASHINGTON'S LEADING BUSINESS MAGAZINE

The Feeling Is Mutual

In the world of co-ops, Seattle is a rock star.
Ross Anderson |   February 2013   |  FROM THE PRINT EDITION
REI
REI's flagship store has become a Seattle landmark.

When co-op managers from around the country met in Seattle last October, they devoted one convention day to a collective busman’s holiday, boarding buses for an organized tour of Seattle-area cooperatives.

They strolled the aisles at a local PCC market, surveying shelves of health foods and learning how a neighborhood buying club grew to become a chain of natural foods markets that sells a half million dollars per day worth of organic everything. They bused over to REI’s monumental flagship store and marveled at how a huge national chain with 122 stores and $2 billion in sales could have evolved from an idea cooked up 75 years ago by a few Seattle mountaineers. They clustered in front of the sedate Capitol Hill offices of People’s Memorial, and heard the story of the nation’s largest funeral cooperative, which has 80,000 members.

While Seattle is best known for Fortune 500 corporations like Boeing and Microsoft, these visitors experienced the city as a cooperative Mecca, the epicenter of a historic movement that is a quiet but crucial facet of the Northwest culture and economy.

“If you’re into cooperatives, you want to come to Seattle to see what they’re about,” observes David Woo, a Philadelphia cooperative activist who got his start selling outdoor equipment at REI in Philadelphia.

In addition to the nation’s largest consumer and funeral co-ops, Seattle and Washington state are also home to the nation’s largest health cooperative, one of the largest credit unions, along with dozens of rural electrical co-ops, farmer co-ops, grocery co-ops and more.

“There’s something in the water out there in Seattle,” suggests Liz Bailey, a vice president of the National Cooperative Business Association, which hosted the October convention. “Something that breeds the cooperative spirit.”

The NCBA is a national organization that represents several hundred cooperatives, including several of Seattle’s, most of which defy the popular stereotypes attached to cooperatives.

“When most people think of co-ops, they think of counterculture hippies and ‘Kumbaya,’” Woo observes, strolling through REI. “But Seattle demonstrates that those stereotypes are ridiculous.”

These days, when many Americans despair over Wall Street’s astronomical salaries and ravenous corporate tactics, co-ops serve as a reminder that there are other ways to do business in the American marketplace.

A recent study at the University of Wisconsin identified more than 29,000 cooperatives across the United States, holding a staggering $3.1 trillion in assets and generating $500 billion in annual sales. They employ 856,000 people who earn $25 billion