The Sustainable Economy: Co-ops and Other People-Friendly Businesses

SELCAs most of our readers know, Book View Café is a cooperative. We’re owned by our author-members and exist for the purpose of publishing books by our members, getting those books wider distribution, and providing services to our members to help them in writing and publishing their books.

That makes us a producer co-op: we’re all people with our own writing business who come together to help each other. That’s similar to farmer co-ops, which often sell their members’ crops and run stores that provide them with seed and tools.

As we say in the co-op movement, “Stronger together.” Each of us at BVC could set up individual web pages to sell ebooks, but then we wouldn’t get the advantage of a store that has multiple authors, not to mention the advantage of sharing skills around. Some of us are good formatters, others are great at cover design, and some are good at solving the tech problems.

Co-ops aren’t new. As a modern entity they date from the mid-19th Century, but the core principles of working together for mutual benefit probably go back to the emergence of human ancestors. But co-ops are part of the burgeoning sustainable economies movement, which is drawing on constructive models from the past as well as inventing new ones.

This week I went to a party/fundraiser celebrating the fifth anniversary of the Sustainable Economies Law Center, a nonprofit here in the San Francisco Bay Area started by lawyers to both advise those who want to start new kinds of businesses and to help them change the laws that are in their way.

Which is to say, it’s a group started by lawyers for social change.

What’s that you say? You don’t think of lawyers and social change in the same breath? You’d be surprised.

I spent about 18 years trying to do social change work as a lawyer. Most of the work I did was for co-ops of one kind or another – food co-ops, housing co-ops, worker-owned businesses.

A lot of the time I worked for legal services organizations. Eventually, I burned out. One of the troubles with working for people without much money who are trying to build decent housing or community-oriented businesses is that the system is stacked against them.

It’s a lot easier to buy an apartment building or start a business if you have a lot of money, or access to people with a lot of money. It’s a lot easier to represent people with money than it is to represent people who are barely getting by.

That’s why I find the work of the Sustainable Economies Law Center (SELC) so exciting. They’re coming up with new ways of doing everything from providing advice to those who want to start worker co-ops or other socially responsible businesses to changing the security laws to make it easier for small operations to get the investment they need from outsiders.

They’re even trying to reintroduce the old idea of “reading for the bar” by establishing an apprenticeship program  for people who want to become lawyers without going to law school. Part of their goal in changing legal education is to produce many more lawyers like themselves who are skilled at helping people start businesses that build communities.

What’s generally referred to as the “sharing economy” potentially has a lot of features that can make it sustainable as well. But some of the most hyped examples of the sharing economy are built on exploiting freelancers. And like most for profit companies, many are more about making profits for their investors than about providing a good income to its workers.

The people at SELC are helping to build a sharing economy that provides lasting benefits to the workers, the customers, and the community at large. According to their principles, a true sharing economy would share everything: wealth and prosperity, power and decision-making, capitalization and risk, resources and efforts, knowledge and information, and responsibility for the common good.

That’s a lot wider concept of sharing than renting someone’s spare room or catching a ride with a freelance driver.

In fact, it’s a lot like an author-run publishing company.

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The Sustainable Economy: Co-ops and Other People-Friendly Businesses — 4 Comments

  1. It’s wonderful to find the co-op model working for social justice/housing/law.

    Out of curiosity: can one “read law” and get a license without having gone to law school these days? I know that’s how it was done a century and a half ago.

    • It varies from state to state. California permits it, but California also has the most difficult bar exam in the country. Last I checked it was legal in Virginia. I’m not sure about the other states. Very few people do it, but given the number of people who become paralegals and the research and other skills they can pick up in that work, it seems to me that it should be used more. The biggest problem is that you might not get exposed to all the different subjects you’re expected to know about for the bar exam, which is a general knowledge test.