Cooperatively owned businesses, including credit unions, permeate the U.S. economy and play an important economic development role in countries around the world. In your everyday life, you may encounter co-ops, like your credit union, routinely, and not even realize it.
In the U.S., Ace and True Value hardware stores are what's called purchasing co-ops, owned by thousands of independent hardware stores. Best Western, the world's largest hotel chain, is owned by independent operators in more than 4,000 hotels in 80 countries.
There's more: Land O' Lakes is a producer co-op whose 300,000 members are organized into more than 1,000 co-ops. REI sporting goods is the nation's largest consumer cooperative. These are just a few prominent examples.
And, of course, the nation's 7,500 credit unions are member-owned financial cooperatives that today serve nearly 94 million Americans—the largest retail co-op sector in the country.
All told, nearly 30,000 U.S. cooperatives with more than $3 trillion in assets operate at 73,000 places of business, generating more than $500 billion in revenue and paying $25 billion in wages to their employees, a recent U.S. Agriculture Department study determined.
Worldwide, the 300 largest cooperatives alone yield revenue of $1.6 trillion—equal to the gross domestic product of the world's ninth largest economy, according to the International Cooperative Alliance's new Global 300 report. The World Council of Credit Unions (WOCCU) estimates nearly 53,000 credit unions in 100 countries are giving more than 100 million people access to affordable, cooperatively owned financial services and a pathway to a better financial future.
For these reasons and more, the United Nations has declared the year 2012 the International Year of Cooperatives. "Cooperatives are a unique and invaluable presence in today's world," explains U.N. Secretary General Bank Ki-moon. "They help to reduce poverty and generate jobs."
Credit unions, along with co-ops in the agriculture, housing, dairy, rural electrification, food, and other sectors, are planning celebrations and recognition events throughout the year to highlight the economic and societal benefits of the cooperative business model, where the members are the owners and the premium is on service above profit.
"Most people don't really know the extent that cooperatives touch their lives, or the benefits of belonging," explains Bill Cheney, president and CEO of the Credit Union National Association (CUNA), the largest U.S. credit union trade group. "In late 2011, the phenomenon of Bank Transfer Day helped to change that perception for credit unions. We believe the International Year of Cooperatives can continue the momentum for all co-op sectors and raise consumer awareness even higher."
Adds Brian Branch, president and CEO of WOCCU: "The recognition of 2012 as the International Year of Cooperatives speaks volumes in helping the public understand the value the cooperative model brings to the members it serves. Our theme for 2012, 'Cooperatives Build a Better World,' is an established truth that, by year's end, we hope more people will come to understand."
Already, the U.S. Senate has adopted a resolution recognizing 2012 as the International Year of Cooperatives, declaring that cooperatives are a "major economic force in developed countries and a powerful business model in developing countries."
In the year ahead, the cooperative community has a number of recognition events planned, ranging from bicycle tours with stops at co-ops, co-op community walking tours, high-profile Washington, D.C., events, online video contests, youth engagement programs, the creation of co-op teaching modules for schools and colleges, and even new mobile apps to find co-ops near you.
"The International Year is a unique opportunity to inform and engage the public and policy makers," says CUNA's Cheney. "Especially today, people are being drawn to businesses that put people first, and that's exactly what co-ops are all about."
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