a Cooperative Ecosystem in Maine

Building a Cooperative Ecosystem

We refer to the combination of history, cultural practices, dense supportive networks, formal institutions and public policy that foster the cooperative economy as a cooperative ecosystem.  It is a web of mutually supportive elements that make it no accident that cooperatives thrive, with tremendously positive economic, social, and demographic results.

While different cooperative ecosystems may have different characteristics, what is essential is a critical mass of features that make cooperatives a relatively easy and “natural” form of business to start or convert to, and maintain profitably. This by no means is meant to suggest that other forms of business are discouraged or would fail to thrive in a cooperative ecosystem. Our point is that a balanced mix of healthy, sustainable conventional businesses, nonprofits and cooperative and employee-owned businesses would create a more robust, prosperous and equitable economy in Maine. We see cooperatives and conventional businesses as mutually supportive, operating side-by-side in networks, contributing to their community and sense of place. As in each of these examples, a cooperative ecosystem in Maine would mean that a significant portion of economic activity still happens via conventional firms, but also that cooperatives serve as economic and social linchpins that broaden the benefits of economic growth (as in Finland and Prospera), sustain and create affordable housing in our communities (as in the example of ROC USA®), incentivize efficient production (particularly craft manufacturing, as in Emilia-Romagna and the Carolina Textile District) and root the businesses in the community. Additionally, what might be called quasi-cooperatives, such as nonprofits, community organizations, loose networks such as farmers’ markets and Community Supported Agriculture have important roles to play in a cooperative ecosystem and economy.

A full cooperative ecosystem is not essential for the formation of a cooperative business, but the presence of the ecosystem makes it much easier, and the lack of the ecosystem makes it much harder. Just as trees will sprout up in the cracks of pavement in a parking lot, but do much better growing in a forest, cooperatives can and do get started in Maine’s current economic and social framework. And, just as trees left unhindered sprouting in a parking lot will eventually create a forest, but a bit of help makes that process happen much faster and creates better results, we believe that policy changes in Maine can move us much more rapidly and effectively toward a cooperative ecosystem and economy. Right now in Maine we are closer to the parking lot than we are to the forest.

Unleashing Cooperation in Maine

Each of our examples come from unique histories, cultural practices and economic circumstances that in many ways differ from Maine’s. This might lead some to believe that a cooperative ecosystem would be impossible to create here. We emphatically believe that this is not the case. Maine’s cooperative ecosystem need not and will not be the same as in any of our examples, still there is much we can learn from their success.

In the cases of Emilia-Romagna and Finland, conscious political efforts and the resulting institutional changes fostered the growth of their cooperative ecosystem and positive economic and social outcomes. In both of these examples, history and cultural practices played a large role, but their cooperative economies emerged as a result of very consequential policy choices that unleashed the cooperative possibilities. The examples of ROCUSA®, Prospera, and the Carolina Textile District show how emerging cooperative ecosystems are being built to help integrate New Americans and sustain and grow affordable housing and heritage industries.

A detailed examination of Maine’s economic and social history is beyond the scope of this report, but the state’s legacy of cooperative efforts (such as sharing profits from the cod fishery), its historically peripheral position in the national economy (fostering independence, hard work, and a strong sense of community), it's challenging work conditions (wicked winters, uneven transportation systems, and overly seasonal economy), and relatively moderate political climate suggest to us that Maine possesses its own historical and cultural features that, with the right policy measures, can foster a cooperative ecosystem and a cooperative economy. Despite the amount of work yet to be done, no place in the United States is better poised to foster a cooperative ecosystem and economy than Maine. It is a process that won’t happen overnight, and will take effort on multiple fronts. But it can be done. We have a foundation, and now is the time to build on it.

Return to Ecosystems page.