Talking about something so vaguely defined as “organisational permaculture” can easily become fluffy and buzz-wordy. So I thought it would help to give a very concrete example of an organisation that embodies some of the principles that I think are at the core of organisational permaculture.
It’s called Københavns Fødevarefællesskab, which translates as “Copenhagen Food Coop”. I’ve been very involved in the food coop for the past three years. Here’s a short video of me explaining the basics of what the food coop is all about:
Last year, we were asked by the Danish news site Modkraft to share our experiences and insights in building the food coop as a commmunity. So, I co-wrote an article with my two good friends Mette Hansen and Carsten Lunding. And it was published on the site just before Christmas.
Now I’ve translated the article into English because I think it does a good job of explaining the values and ideas behind the food coop — values that I find align very well with organisational permaculture. I’d love to hear your feedback on this.
Anything but ‘business as usual’
Copenhagen Food Coop is not like most businesses or even voluntary organisations. We want to to challenge the way things usually are done. We want it all: Local, sustainable, seasonal, organic produce at a fair price distributed by a working community in an open and transparent way. And it works. In three years, the coop has grown from 30 to more than 5.000 members.
Copenhagen Food Coop (“Københavns Fødevarefællesskab” in Danish with the acronym KBHFF) started with a simple idea: An organic supermarket where the members are not just customers but also co-workers and co-owners. It was modelled on Park Slope Food Coop in New York: By chipping in with a few hours of work each month, coop members can cut costs and buy organic foods at prices that are remarkably lower compared to ordinary supermarkets. And as co-owners, members take part in decisions on which products the coop should keep in stock.
Since KBHFF started proper in the Nørrebro neighbourhood of Copenhagen in August of 2009, it has grown to be much more than just a grocery store with a funny ownership scheme. It has become a grand experiment. A learning space. Not only do we work together to distribute fresh fruit and vegetables every week — but we are also working together to figure out how to create an organisation that is truly sustainable. Not just economically or environmentally but also socially.
Here are some of the insights that we’ve learned along the way:
Positive thinking makes a difference
In our statement of purpose, we write that KBHFF wants to be part of a sustainable future. And from the beginning it’s been central for us that KBHFF is built on positive rather than negative values. We believe in the power of the good example. It’s too easy to point fingers at all the things that the big supermarket chains and conventional farms are doing wrong. Instead, we want to focus on building an alternative that fits in the future that we want to live in.
Defining our values so clearly in this way focuses our energy and our courage. It gives the coop a purity and a sense of purpose that many find incredibly appealing. But it is also difficult because we refuse to compromise our values. We want it all: Local, sustainable, seasonal, organic produce at a fair price distributed by a working community in an open and transparent way. And then we’l have to figure out how we can make that happen.
Collective action builds community
KBHFF is built on the fundamental truth that communities are created and sustained through the things you do together. Our community is very much focused on the day-to-day — we have bags of veggie to distribute every Wednesday. Meaning we have some very concrete tasks that we have to do together. This is both a strength and a weakness.
It is a strength because we do things together every Wednesday. There are concrete, practical things to do every week, and that keeps us engaged with one another. The pleasant and friendly atmosphere in the shops and the weekly vegetables provide an immediate payoff that makes it easy for all of us to remember why it is great to be part of KBHFF.
It is a weakness because our organisation is still so young, loose and impulsive that a lot of Wednesdays end up as small fires to be put out where only the bare essentials are done, leaving a lot of people frustrated after a unsatisfying shift that they didn’t feel properly prepared for. And this only makes it harder to look ahead and develop our organisation to fix these problems.
We’re building the jumbo jet in mid-flight
Even though we have clear and strong values, we still don’t have a well-defined strategy. We avoid defining grand visions and strategies. We have no idea where we might be ind 5 years time. But we know we’re on the right track as long as we’re making good on our purpose every Wednesday. We want to ensure that there’s room for everyone to get involved and take part in shaping the coop, and let the organisation grow organically from there. We grow in small bursts, like buds on a tree. We make mistakes and correct them as we go along.
This has led to KBHFF having a distributed organisation with a lot of small local shops all over Copenhagen (eleven so far), instead of just one big supermarket. This approach has made us reconsider whether our goal really should be to build a big supermarket, since the way supermarkets work at present are remarkably unsustainable.
Even so, this kind of growth presents a lot of challenges as well: It’s a lot harder to keep track of a lot of small, independent shops than one big one. And it’s equally difficult to ensure that all of the members in all of the shops understand what the food coop is all about. As a result, we’re working hard just to keep the jumbo jet in the air, not worrying too much about where we’re heading.
We can’t avoid making mistakes
We are fully aware that we are making mistakes all the time. There is simply no way for us to avoid them. Particularly so when it comes to matters of opinion. We have no way of knowing in advance what kind of issues people feel strongly about. We have taken the very pragmatic approach of simply trying to take these issues as they arise. Though that may mean that we won’t decide whether to buy avocados from Israel or peas from a prison farm until after we’ve actually bought them. So it goes. We can’t define a policy that will cover all of such issues in advance. If that was the case we would never get anything done. Instead we have to be good at resolving these issues when they arise.
Our differences makes the project as a whole more open and accessible
The members of KBHFF are a very mixed crowd. It is a community that connects people across age, gender, languages, education, social status. We all share an interest in getting better and more sustainable foods. But apart from that there are a wide range of reasons that have brought us to KBHFF. For instance, some members rarely buy any vegetables but enjoy being part of a vibrant local community.
Another shared trait might be that we tend to have more time than money (even though it in no way is true for all of us). And that we have made the life style choice of spending some time together in a food coop rather than working more hours at our day job in order to buy our food in a conventional supermarket.
Our differences do spark the occasional conflict as with the avocados or the peas. But most of the time we manage to resolve these conflicts by being as open and inclusive as possible. This helps to ensure that we don’t become self-absorbed and secterian because we’re continually reminded of how different we are.
We don’t have to have an opinion on everything
Thus, it is equally important for us that you can be a member of KBHFF without being forced to subscribe to all sorts of opinions that have nothing to do with the distribution of food. That is why KBHFF is not a traditional political project. We’re not right wing nor left wing. Our purpose and the work we do transcends political boundaries.
Because of this we abstain from supporting political campaigns and legislation — even if it appears to be in line with our values and principles. This makes us pretty difficult to collaborate with. But that is a premise that we have chosen to accept in order to be able to things our own way, and remain open and accessible for as many different kinds of people as possible.
We are part of a bigger community
KBHFF is not just a community of people living in Copenhagen with a penchant for organic foods. We are also part of a bigger community that encompasses the organic farmers that produce the fruits and vegetables that we distribute. We don’t see the farmers as anonymous suppliers to be compelled to lower their prices. They’re just as much a part of the sustainable community that we’re trying to bring to life.
The welfare of the farmers is at least as important to us as the fact the produce that we buy from them has been grown in a sustainable manner. That is why we sell the produce at prices that are fair for the farmers and for the members of the coop both. And that is why we have regular meetings with the farmers to coordinate our purchases in relation to their production schedule.
We see KBHFF as a platform where our suppliers can meet — not as competitors but as colleagues — and work with us to create new solutions for our common good. Put another way, we see relationship with the farmers as a mutually dependent symbiosis rather than as a simple marketplace relation. This approach has also led to our decision to buy produce from farmers who are in the process of converting their farms to organic food production. Partly to help minimise their losses as they convert to a more sustainable way of farming. Partly to inspire and motivate other farmers to convert as well.
It’s a school for all of us
It’s a new, strange and often difficult thing for us to work together in an organisation like KBHFF. We all have the opportunity to be part of building this organisation and no answers are given in advance. We celebrate initiative and believe that is easier to receive forgiveness than permission. We challenge ourselves to create a safe atmosphere where everybody feels comfortable taking the initiative and the responsibility for the things they want to improve.
Our loose, distributed structure offers plenty of opportunities for members and local shops to decide how they want to organise their work. And we work hard to take all of our decisions through a facilitated consensus process where decisions are made by the people they affect.
Making KBHFF sustainable is a big challenge. Especially when you consider that is an organisation that self-assembles every Wednesday solely through the members’ volunteer effort. A lot of people are having a hard time finding their way in such an organisation without a clear hierarchical structure to tell them what to do and who’s in charge. It’s hard to take charge. It’s hard to delegate and share responsibility. It’s hard to help others take charge. It’s hard to develop a form of leadership where no one takes on too much and everybody feels empowered to act.
KBHFF is a school for all of us in that way. It is a shared space for learning to act, to take initiative and for self-determination. All of us learn all the time by being part of it. Yes, it is often difficult. But the only way that we’ll get better at it is to keep doing it.
KBHFF has grown a lot over the past three years. And now, our organisation is slowly maturing as well. We can’t keep on going on the eager start-up energy that drove us all in the beginning. Now, KBHFF is a part of everyday life and it’s important that it can function without anybody taking on too much or burning out. Nobody’s indispensable in a sustainable organisation. And that’s how we want it to be in KBHFF.
We are trying to build an organisation where it is just as easy to reduce your involvement as it is to increase it. But that requires us to let others know when we no longer have the time or the energy to remain in the role that we have taken. Doing so will make it easier for others to step up and continue the work we have started. We have now reached a point where none of the people who helped start the first local shop i Nørrebro in 2009 are active in KBHFF’s coordinating body, the collective group. Instead, the group has been energised by new members with fresh ideas and lots of drive. So now, we old “members emeritus” can drop by our local shops on Wednesdays, take our monthly shifts, and take pride in how the seeds that we have helped to plant are sprouting and flourishing.
In the past three years, KBHFF has grown from 30 to 5000 members. It has been an unexpected success in a lot of ways. Not the least because we started out by challenging what a food distribution business could be. We have made a lot of mistakes along the way. But we have always been very conscious of the fact that all of our work would make it easier for those to come. We have always had an open source approach to the food coop, sharing our knowledge as openly as possible so that others don’t have to start from scratch if they want to start a similar project.
We want to continue doing so. And we hope that KBHFF can be an inspiration to other, new, exciting, alternative forms of organisation. Not just in the foodstuff sector, but also in other completely different sectors such as telecommunications services, restaurants, childcare, transportation or something else that we haven’t even thought of yet. And we want to share what we know, so please just ask.