Cooperation: Cultivating Our Unfair Advantage at Honest Weight

Voting at the Special Membership Meeting

The ease with which cooperatives like Honest Weight forget what makes them unique in the competitive marketplace of grocery and natural foods saddens me no end. If being a member-owned store with meaningful hands-on member involvement doesn’t give us some sort of competitive advantage, I don’t know what will. The challenge for us, I believe, will be developing this difference for our benefit in as many ways as we can.

Thanks to the election of a new board whose members are explicitly committed to our Co-op’s founding values, I can see light at the end of the tunnel. I hope my vision proves correct, as the challenges we face are complex. In any case, I think it’s important for us to reflect on the intense period of struggle that recently came to a head at Honest Weight. Being clearer about what went wrong should help us as we go forward.

Choosing how to Frame the Situation

I believe in learning from wherever we can, so I’ll set the stage with a memorable story about teaching second grade told in Waking Up White. The author, then a teacher, doesn’t know what to do about a particular student, a Haitian girl with the habit of leaving her seat to talk with other students. She thinks the girl has a self-control problem. Then, thanks to her participation in consciousness raising training about white privilege, she is able to examine the situation with fresh eyes. The girl, she finally realizes, keeps getting up in order to help her classmates!

When the teacher ask this little girl how she knows which classmate needs her help, the girl beams and hugs her. Her culture had socialized her to value inter-dependence while the teacher’s training stressed maintaining order and each student progressing individually. In recognizing the cross-cultural clash, she is able to perceive the beauty and morality of the girl’s actions.

How often have members of the Honest Weight family fallen into the trap of analyzing the situation at the Co-op — and its options — from too narrow a perspective? Do we forget to look at the intangibles that don’t immediately translate into dollars and cents? In the concerted top-down campaign to do away with member labor in the store, did proponents ever consider the risks of alienating the group that’s probably our most loyal category of shopper? Or on the benefits side, was serious consideration given to the intrinsic value of member labor itself, or the potential of tapping the knowledge and wisdom of the people who have devoted so much time over the years as grassroots members?

You may recall that the Board and Leadership Team initially presented the issue of member labor as one of costs to the Co-op. (The Honest Weight Membership resoundingly defeated their attempt to reduce working member discounts in a vote last June.) While I participated in that vote, I am not arguing that it’s ok for the Co-op to lose money. Of course not. We have to operate in the real world.

But that doesn’t mean that we have to adopt the mindset of our competitors. If we eliminate our essence as a cooperative, market forces will have prevailed, even if our business survives in name. I hope that we will remember that, like the girl in that second grade, sometimes what we perceive as a problem is actually an advantage in disguise. I suggest we begin to wrap our heads around what benefits our uniqueness as an organization can bring us. This is what would be known as our “unfair advantage” in the world of business and economics.

Are Members a Cost or a Benefit?

The new Board embraced this strategy at the large membership meeting held on the last day of January. They asked the assembled Honest Weight members if anyone had any ideas for helping the Co-op. After a number of people had stood up and offered their ideas, everyone was given a chance to go to an easel with the group of their choosing and brainstorm aspects of a given idea.

To this Honest Weight member of more than a quarter of a century (I joined in 1989 when we were in a little storefront on Quail Street), this short exercise felt like a watershed moment. Over the years I’ve grown used to my suggestions getting lost in the bureaucracy of our increasingly large and layered organization. Maybe sometimes all it takes to shift perceptions and galvanize participation is posing a simple question and having the willingness to listen.

Hearing such good ideas from our members — some of which resonated with my own concerns and ruminations — gave me great hope for our 36-year-old experiment. I marveled, too, at the actual economic value of our putting our heads together like that! I drove home that night with a sense of euphoria and lots of good will — toward the Board, for having the guts to try to empower the Membership, and toward the caring members who came up with promising avenues for the Co-op to explore and put into place. I’m looking forward to hearing about follow-up opportunities to join in that process.

A Less Productive Process

Last spring I took part in one of the 3-hour strategic planning gatherings as did hundreds of other Honest Weight members, but that experience didn’t carry the immediacy or meaningfulness I experienced at the recent membership meeting. For the strategic planning process, seated in small breakout groups, we followed instructions from a highly paid consultant in filling out charts with a myriad of our views and ideas. Collectively we produced a huge mishmash of raw material. I never heard another word about the outcome of that process.

That strategic planning gathering seemed untethered from the realities at hand. In our little breakout group, a long-time member stated, as an objective, being able to pay back our loans for the new building. This stunned me and I wanted to find out more, but our group had a process to complete. Meanwhile, Honest Weight was actually failing to meet its performance targets tied to a major bank loan, leading to penalties. Yet until our interim Chief Financial Officer informed the membership of that important fact at the January 2016 membership meeting, the Membership at large had not been made aware of this.

Draw Solutions from what Makes Us Special

Call me simple, but I don’t think we ever needed a long drawn-out process to find out in which direction Honest Weight should be going. Instead we needed a better form of analysis that draws solutions from shared values. The sole question could be: What makes us special and how can we build on it?

I bet that little girl in the second grade could have told her teacher why she kept jumping out of her seat. But so often, those in power neglect to ask. Moving forward, let’s use the idea of our unfair advantage as our theme. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to together accentuate our unique values and turn them into something as real as possible, rather than merely paying them lip service or treating them as inconveniences?

Tracy Frisch has been an Honest Weight shareholder since 1989. She has a long history of involvement in environmental issues, from recycling to pesticides to sustainable agriculture. A freelance journalist, she writes for Acres USA, The Sun magazine, and Hill Country Observer. She homesteads in Argyle, NY, 43 miles north of Albany.