Is River Market Fair in Matters of Money?

Article written by Elissa Cottle, published in newsletter for RIver Market Community Co-op:

This story is a collection of questions, starting with to what end does River Market exist? Our board has agreed that the co-op must strive to “cultivate a healthy community” through the following three end goals, by establishing

  • equitable economic relationships,

  • positive environmental impacts, and

  • inclusive, socially responsible business practices.

My end for this story is to illuminate how well “equitable economic relationships” are being achieved by River Market. As a board member, I am informed monthly by our general manager about the economic state of affairs of the co-op. River Market, like all businesses, is challenged at times by the economic conditions of our community. But from my vantage point, I am confident and proud of how our co-op is consistently growing in its volume of owners and of the unflagging vitality of our business.

Other grocery stores serve our community but none like River Market, because the co-op does grocery business cooperatively. This means that our store is co-owned by many of its shoppers, those who have made a one-time purchase of $80 worth of stock and annually elect who will be its directors. The board of directors, in turn, keeps watch for the store's owners on the economic and social dealings of River Market.

Unlike many conventional businesses owned by stockholders, our bottom line is not profit for shareholders but products that “pay” toward the health of our consumers. Co-ops are for profit but the monetary profits are distributed equitably among all stakeholders, which often means profits are invested back into the store, thereby growing the business to benefit the community as a whole. When the board decides it's financially responsible for the business, stockholders are paid dividends. At times, the co-op seeks above-the-minimum shareholder loans, with interest, to improve and or grow the business. The bigger and better the co-op, the more people are offered healthy food and products.

We board members check monthly on whether River Market's profits are collected and spent wisely and equitably for the community we serve. The underlying questions we want answered include:

Do our profits equitably benefit the community?

Is the staff paid and treated fairly?

Are the co-op's food and products safe and healthy for our consumers?

Are our customers welcomed and treated respectfully?

Is the local economy boosted by the co-op's choice of food, farmers and product suppliers?

Is the ship of River Market being steered toward economic survival?

Overall, our board answers yes to these questions, based on the evidence presented by our general manager, Mead Stone, input from River Market owners and shoppers, and our own experience as shoppers. But if those answers waver, the board is empowered to take steps to correct any negative circumstances.

And the question I then ask myself is how does all this translate into River Market's first of its three ends—“equitable economic relationships”? Equitable means fair and just. And River Market's economic relationships—relationships that involve monetary transactions—include those between:

  • staff and shoppers

  • the store and its food/product suppliers

  • the co-op and its staff

  • the co-op and its owners (via their stock investments)

  • the River Market Board and its general manager (via salary decisions)

  • River Market and community organizations (via co-op donations)

I believe this end, having equitable economic relationships, ultimately is subjective because the definition of equitable—fair and just—is subjective. Overall, I believe River Market's monetary relationships are fair. But if one claims a price or a wage is less than fair, being a co-op we have specific tools to remedy that in the fair and just spirit of cooperation.

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