PCC presentation to United Nations Summer Academy
This article was originally published in September 2022
PCC is a Northwest institution, but its work and goals are relevant around the globe.
Aimee Simpson, the co-op’s senior director of advocacy and environmental, social and governance (ESG), discussed “how to learn from the past to feed the future through sustainable cooperative markets” in a recent talk with the United Nations Summer Academy. Participants in the intense five-day education on sustainable transformation pathways focused on “global trends, powerful forces and changing patterns in our world.”
The co-op’s story was significant to the discussion, moderator Paulyn Duman told the virtual audience targeted at UN staff, government representatives and others, because PCC is “accountable to ordinary citizens and not to investors,” with different accompanying priorities. “This is something that is so interesting, and so powerful because this is something different from what we are used to when it comes to markets.”
Simpson recounted how PCC was founded in a garage in 1953 as a buying club for 15 families. Key founder John Affolter was inspired by the cooperative movement and its Rochdale Principles, with their ideals of democratic member control, education, and sustainability. The co-op was guided by those principles and quickly evolved to support natural and organic foods—and the greater community it served.
Once the organization reached a larger size, Simpson noted, governance became more centralized and some issues became trickier, e.g., figuring out how to buy from local farmers who might just be able to supply a few PCC stores rather than all its current 16 branches. But its larger size also meant more power to fuel changes, a larger and broader manifestation of the pooled resources of the original 15 families.
The principles backing the co-op meant PCC was committed to “driving and supporting other concepts and ideas outside our organization,” Simpson said. That’s meant endeavors like founding the PCC Farmland Trust to conserve local and organic farmland (now the Washington Farmland Trust), helping found Seattle’s P-Patch community garden program, advocating for state and national organic certification standards, and partnering with the Monterey Bay Aquarium when it first developed its seafood standards.
“We, as a local co-op, can’t be inspecting all the places where all our food comes from and making sure they’re meeting our standards. So these labels are really important, but we do on occasion try to say, OK, where’s this gap? We want it to go further.” For instance, she noted, existing national seafood standards didn’t address regional issues with the Chinook salmon run and orcas, so PCC developed its own Chinook salmon standard.
“We wanted to support local fishermen and tribes and everybody else who relied on and cared for this resource, but we wanted to make sure it was being done right.”
Participants asked about issues like the tradeoffs involved in increasing a business’ scale, how to prioritize issues like animal welfare and sustainability, and how to draw in the community.
One practical path, Simpson said, is products like PCC’s private label foods, which hold to the quality and standards that the co-op wants to associate with its name. Another is advocating for issues members and shoppers care about and committing to hard decisions: “How do we impact that on an external scale, whether it’s global, national or local?…
“Those are things we really have to think through and say, ok, it costs money to transition this stuff but we are willing to do it, because we want to be leaders on that front.”
At any size, she noted, businesses face balances and tradeoffs. The co-op hasn’t expanded beyond the Puget Sound region, and even at more than 100,000 members, “sometimes we’re not big enough to have the impact that our members want us to have” when it comes to national and global issues. And yet its commitment to local producers and supply chains was a huge benefit in its ability to serve the community during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Attendees asked about keeping on track with goals. The pandemic, for instance, interrupted the supply chain for polylactic acid (PLA) compostable containers, a setback in goals to make the PCC deli completely free of petroleum-based plastics by 2023. And PCC’s long-term efforts to allow reusable containers in stores were also interrupted by the pandemic. But the work continues and the paths are on a new route. When such disruptions hit it’s important to say “We’re going to not let that setback keep us from being who we want to be going into the future,” she said.
The fundamental rules include: “How do you find that balance and make sure that you are continuing to listen to staff, to your members, to your communities, and really finding that engagement that works. (Show) you are open to listening and that you’re open to making those choices and making sure that you are doing what you set out to do.”