Coop News: Shopping for a Better World in San Miguel

Elizabeth Bowman
Robert Stone
Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Globalization — the attempt to build a human world by spreading US-style market economics — has failed. A larger percent of humanity is underfed today than when the World Bank and IMF started 60 years ago. If globalization is ruining farmers, polarizing wealth, polluting and depleting the planet, causing war and even hurting foreigner-local relations in San Miguel, what can we do about it? The issue has arisen at events put on by the Center for Global Justice. Infrequently using our political power is not enough. How about also exercising our economic power? One strategy is to morally choose how and what we produce, what we buy, and how we save and invest our money.

Flooded by cheap, subsidized NAFTA farm products, Mexican farmers are “desperate,” says Alberto Arroyo of RMALC, Mexico’s anti-NAFTA network ( As consumers who are free to set our own criteria for sustainability, organics, fair trade, responsible consumerism, credit unions, and social investing, we can help. Let’s sort these movements by their criteria.

If you ask for “organic” you’ll likely get chemical-free results of environmentally sound farming but not necessarily under good working conditions. Local organic produce is available, for example, at BBQ Bob’s on Ancha San Antonio. Mexico’s organic certifier, Certimex, requires soil and watercourse protection. But “organic” can mean selling super-exploited stuff in high-end niches. We get what we ask for. Organic Consumers Association ( combines “organic” with “fair trade” criteria (see below). Luckily for us, a leader of this 600,000 strong group lives part-time in San Miguel, and is encouraging “community supported agriculture” here. New to Mexico, CSA farmers pay infrastructural costs but nearby shareholders buy their crops, picking them up at harvest time. (See for a national database of CSAs in the US.)

If you “buy local” you get fresher food, re-circulate community wealth, and short-circuit the globalizing WalMart economy. Campaigns by FoodRoutes ( and Global Exchange ( are gathering momentum. But again: labor relations may be poor. Deliverers of a local water told us the company does not pay their seguro.

If you want good labor practices, progressively better ones are implied in these criteria: “socially sustainable,” “sweat free,” “fair trade,” “union made,” and “co-op made.” In effect, “free trade” means free of environmental and labor standards. By contrast, “fair trade” or “comercio justo” labels are backed by certifying agencies and usually mean long-term contracts at above world market prices, without middle men. Mexico’s Comercio Justo aims to directly help coffee co-ops or family farms. But to get the label, only 50% of product has to be from such “small producers,” a large loophole. ( And not all

The gold standard in labor relations is “co-op made” meaning worker co-ops where the workers are the owners, democratically run the place, and share all profits. A union wage is still a wage: others profit from your labor. Last May in Minneapolis, following Canada, the 300 or so worker co-ops in the US, with an estimated 10,000 worker-owners, founded the U.S. Federation of Worker Cooperatives. ( Mexico is forming such a federation.

Co-op products available in San Miguel include: Mujeres Productoras. This cooperative of 104 women artisans, sells exploitation-free baskets, embroidery, clothing, shampoo and soap from their shop in Meson San Jose on Mesones. Union de la Selva. Coffee from this Chiapas cooperative is available at La Ventana on Sollano. Boing-brand soft drinks. Fruit-based refrescos from this worker cooperative, Pascual, are at many groceries. Other local “buy-coop” opportunities are available, but need investigation. We will report.

Economic power is being used not just to create eddies of humanity in corporate globalization but to move beyond it altogether. Solidarity economies, well along in Europe, are starting in Mexico. ( Alternative economies include kill banks and local currencies, social change consumerism, and movements for voluntary simplicity. All show “a better world is possible,” in the slogan of the World Social Forums. We’ll do a later piece on them.

When we do jointly set and act on criteria for where we spend or invest, results can be dramatic: many civil rights victories and the defeat of apartheid owed much to ethical buying and investment. Changing the world with economic power is not easy (deep habits need re-direction), cannot be done at all in isolation from each other, and is not the only strategy needed. But if we band together, set goals and criteria, and examine producer candidates, we can build a more human economy. A consumer co-op could find (and elicit) products suited to its criteria. Why shouldn’t we set an example? A meeting time and place will soon be announced.