Coupons for co-ops and the rise of global platform cooperatives

Leo Sammallahti

Leo Sammallahti

May 6, 2020

If you are an average American, it is most likely that the only cooperative you can join is your local credit union. If you live in the most vibrant cooperative hotspots of the country, you might have a few more coops you can join. In some areas of rural America, it is not uncommon for a person to be a member of an electricity, phone and agricultural cooperative as well. When it comes to buying from a cooperative store, hardware cooperatives (such as ACE Hardware) are widespread, but otherwise a typical American does not have many options.

As part of the young and booming platform cooperative movement, the first co-operatives that people around the world can join and trade with, sometimes as easily as subscribing to Spotify, have emerged. I used Spotify specifically as an example, because there exists a similar music streaming platform called Resonate, which is a cooperative owned by the listeners and musicians. Platform cooperatives where anyone in the world is only a few clicks away from joining can grow their membership faster and they have greater potential membership than any past co-operatives. It also means that the potential number of cooperatives a person can buy goods and services from will grow, as one new global platform cooperative means everyone online has a new cooperative to trade with.

This makes a coupon that could be used solely in cooperatives more viable. If 10 years ago an average American would have been given a coupon that would provide 50% discount for the first 20$ spent in any cooperative, it would be of little use; they could do little else than buy something from ACE Hardware. If that would be done now, they could use it to buy music from Resonate, stock photos from Stocksy United (a cooperative of stock photographers) or a subscription to Collective Tools, a cooperative that provides a variety of project organising software. My guess is that the number of such global platform cooperatives will grow from a dozen to hundreds in the next decade or two, we at Coop Exchange being one of them.

There are many ways such a scheme could work. Instead of coupons, it could be vouchers. I used coupons as an example because “Co-op Coupon” just sounds better than a “Co-op Voucher”. Perhaps the coupons could only be used to trade with young cooperatives to help them take their first steps. They could be used for specific types of cooperatives, such as worker cooperatives or cooperatives of specific industries, such as to encourage people to try out beers from cooperative breweries.

Who would be the ideal actors to issue these coupons? Many consumer cooperatives already issue coupons and vouchers - enabling those coupons to be used in more cooperatives could be one way to implement it, perhaps by requiring the other cooperatives to also issue similar coupons and vouchers. Could they join together as a cooperative that would be responsible for issuing the vouchers and the coupons?

Supporting cooperatives through coupons and vouchers could have some benefits compared to other ways of support, such as grants. The decision on how the support should be allocated would be done by a large number of people based on the ability of cooperatives to provide goods and services that people want, not by having a panel of experts evaluate applications and trying to estimate hypothetical future projections. For a big cooperative that wants to support new cooperatives, there might be additional benefits. If such a cooperative decides to simply donate money to new cooperatives with grants, the members might see it as their money being given away by the managers. If the same money would instead be used to give members cooperative vouchers or coupons, the members would be more likely to see it as an additional member benefit given to them.

In the platform cooperative email list many of the active participants have shown a lot of interest towards creating alternatives to the financial system, with many seeing the root problem being the way money is issued. We have witnessed the launch of fantastic new projects as a result - such as the Open Credit Network, a cooperative that issues its own currency that its members (mostly small businesses and self-employed) can trade with, similar to another “mutual credit” cooperative, the Swiss WIR bank that boasts a quarter of all Swiss businesses as its members. One of the core ideals in these visions seems to be the idea of enabling people to withdraw from the current economic system and move to a fairer ecosystem, such as by using mutual credit cooperatives instead of conventional currencies to trade with others. I wonder where a cooperative voucher or coupon scheme would fit in with the broader ideas behind projects like mutual credit networks and other attempts to create a parallel, fairer financial system? Not to confuse people or seem confused, mutual credit cooperatives are fundamentally different from a voucher or coupon scheme, but nevertheless I think there is some interesting overlap. What if a cooperative voucher scheme would include so many cooperatives that a person could buy all they need by only using these vouchers? That is obviously an entirely utopian vision, but hopefully one that provides some food for thought.