In its long form, the seventh (and last) cooperative principle—concern for community—seems simple enough: “While focusing on member needs, cooperatives work for the sustainable development of their communities through policies accepted by their members.”
In practice, the idea of sustainability has been reshuffled and retooled by the cooperative community, especially with the advent of the environmental movement in the 1960s and 1970s. Last August, we talked about the significant accomplishment of making it to 75 years as an electric cooperative in South Carolina. That’s not easy. I’d argue that the reason some cooperative movements last and others don’t really comes down to this last principle, which is what I call the “lasting” principle.
Focusing on members’ needs allows you to look at the dashboard of where you are (the today) but also look down the road (the tomorrow), working with your members on a constant basis to keep the community strong and sustainable.
When you look at what cooperatives in South Carolina have done and should do to empower the communities we serve, there are at least four ways to nurture sustainability.
First, economic sustainability is huge. The South Carolina Power Team, a business- development partnership of electric cooperatives and Santee Cooper, leads the state in landing new business investment, including the 2015 decision by Volvo Car Corporation to build its first North American manufacturing facility in a co‑op-served territory. That major announcement is merely the latest win from the Power Team. Since 1988, they have brought more than $11 billion in capital investments and 63,000 jobs to our state by helping companies find suitable industrial sites with the utility infrastructure they need to grow and prosper.
Second, educational sustainability is critical to our future success in South Carolina. It is hard to develop our economy and recruit new industry if we don’t have an educated workforce with the skills to do the job. Going further, why would a company relocate to South Carolina if we can’t offer employees the very best schools for their children? Co-ops across the state do their parts to support education by offering such programs as Bright Ideas and EnlightenSC that lift our young people’s minds to the future.
Third, environmental sustainability matters. In order to last, the health of the co-op is tied to the health of the communities we serve. We must take care of our own backyard—our Common Home (a term I borrow from Pope Francis in his May 2015 encyclical, Laudato si’). We rise and fall together based upon the choices we make.
Finally, infrastructure as a key ingredient of sustainability speaks for itself. Our co-ops need good roads not just for trucks to quickly and efficiently repair outages, but also to serve the businesses and schools essential to our communities.
Transportation infrastructure needs are obvious. Less obvious, but just as important, are our broadband and digital infrastructure, a vital requirement for success in an ever-changing economy.
What do our co-ops need for tomorrow? Honestly, hopefully and humbly, I don’t know. I only know that, if we listen to our members, we’ll figure it out together as we have for the past 75 years.
The Seven Cooperative Principles
1. Voluntary and open membership
2. Democratic member control
3. Members’ economic participation
4. Autonomy and independence
5. Education, training and information
6. Cooperation among cooperatives
7. Concern for community