Chen Lai-hung, a noted proponent of "collaboration among women," has been devoting her energies to a women's food cooperative since 1994. One of her objectives is to get the women's movement more closely involved with the everyday concerns of normal people, for instance by tackling the problem of contaminated foods, always a major headache for housewives. In addition, she hopes to use the co-op movement to galvanize women to develop an alternative "women's economy."
Feeling it important to take the wo-men's movement into people's everyday lives, Chen turned to the women who had once helped her establish the Homemakers' Union and Foundation. After studying the consumer co-op movement in Japan, in the spring of 1994 they established the Green Advocates Collective Buying Center. In addition to helping housewives gain access to safe foods, they have also set their sights on combating the problem of contaminated foods and helping people live in harmony with the natural environment.
Li Jen-yi, who heads the co-op's delivery division, laughs as she recalls, "We started out really tiny. It was just a few of us driving into the mountains and bringing back the products. It was very tough." The co-op has slowly grown over the intervening eight years, and currently has a membership of over 1800 families and 5000 individuals from across Taiwan.
In keeping with the group's goal of preventing food contamination, most of the products sold by the co-op have been grown without the use of pesticides. All of the vegetables, fruits, milk, eggs, dried products (fruits, fish, etc.), and other perishables are produced in Taiwan. The group is especially strong in the area of fresh produce, especially root, stem, and leaf vegetables, as well as melons and other fruits. Another special feature of the co-op is its home delivery service, which runs during both daytime and evening hours.
Housewives join the co-op by buying a shareholding of at least NT$2000, then pay an annual membership fee of NT$600 (about US$17). Groups of neighbors organize themselves into "buying teams." Team members take turns each week acting as team leaders, who are responsible for going out once that week to collect and distribute the purchases.
After the products leave the farm, they go first to a distribution center in Sanchung, on the outskirts of Taipei, before being shipped to the co-op's outlets throughout Taiwan. From there the team leaders pick up the produce as quickly as possible on behalf of their teams.
The central distribution center in Sanchung has separate inspection, warehousing, general affairs, and product divisions. In addition, the co-op also has retail outlets in northern, central, and southern Taiwan. Each outlet has a head who, in addition to taking charge of sales, also acts as an educator, passing on accurate information about foods to consumers. Wu Ai-feng used to be just another consumer, but now she is the head of a retail co-op outlet in the Taipei suburb of Hsintien. She joined the co-op after finishing up nursing her child. Says Wu, "After I started buying from the co-op, I learned about which foods didn't have any additives or carcinogens. I gradually came to believe more strongly in the co-op philosophy, and then eventually became actively involved in running it."
Looking out for the disadvantaged
A key part of the co-op philosophy calls for the organization to look after the needs of the less privileged members of society. Several of the people one sees carefully looking over the produce lists at the distribution center in Sanchung have mental illnesses. Their employment has been arranged in cooperation with Taipei Municipal Chung Hsing Hospital and the Taipei City Psychiatric Center, where doctors carefully screen out patients with violent tendencies and recommend suitable young candidates for simple clerical work in the co-op's warehousing division. The hope is that the warmth and support of the women there will keep these people in contact with society and aid in their rehabilitation.
According to Lu Mei-luan, of the co-op's general affairs division, the organization has similar plans for other disadvantaged groups, such as selling products and donating the proceeds. Examples include soap (for people living in disaster-stricken areas) and arts and crafts (for children with life-threatening illnesses). The co-op also provides support for self-employed aborigines, who tend to have fewer outlets than other businesses. Although some products may not be beautifully packaged, or designed to sell like hotcakes, that doesn't make a big difference because this business doesn't aim at attracting huge numbers of consumers from the start, and the members attracted to this group by nature tend to be more receptive towards the co-op's kind of products.
Improved modes of production
The co-op's fruit and vegetables come from small farms throughout Taiwan, while the meats all come from the area between Taichung and Tainan. The animals all pass a multi-stage inspection procedure and are slaughtered using a humane procedure in which they are electrically stunned before being bled to death. In addition, the co-op only buys from providers who sign contracts guaranteeing that their meat will be residue-free (i.e. won't contain residues of growth hormones or other chemicals added to the animals' feed). The contracts contain provisions for compensation for breach of contract, and the co-op exercises supervision of the production process. If a producer fails to live up to its end of the bargain to provide uncontaminated foods, its products will be returned and the producer will have to pay a penalty for breach of contract.
In order to build a closer relationship between co-op members and producers, the co-op frequently organizes trips for consumers to see how farmers produce the food. According to Lu Mei-luan, "By reducing the distance between consumers and producers, we hope to gradually change the attitudes of consumers toward people and the land."
"The co-op movement is a sort of alternative economy," says Chen Lai-hung, who adds that the purpose of the consumers' co-op is to unite producers and consumers into an undertaking that operates independently of the capitalist system. According to Chen, the combined influence of a large bloc of consumers can help to maintain the viability of locally based agriculture. Says Chen with a worried expression, "If we don't develop this kind of economy, we'll have a hard time dealing with the impact of Taiwan's accession to the World Trade Organization."
That may be so, but the fact is that after nearly eight years in business, the consumers' co-op is still not competitive. Mrs. Lai, a co-op team leader, frankly admits that many consumers are put off by the high prices: "You can get two head of choy sum elsewhere for NT$50. At the co-op they go for 70. Tomatoes that cost 45 will run you 85 here. The price difference really makes people think twice about buying from us. But if we would just put quality over quantity-a family could use just one tomato in a meal instead of two or three, for example, and they'd save a lot of money in the process!"
A certain Ms. Wu, not a co-op member, likes the co-op's philosophy but says that most people won't join because it takes too much time and money: "Most families in Taiwan are double-income, and working women can't go out regularly to buy and distribute groceries. It's a lot easier to pick up what you need at a supermarket or convenience store."
Although there have been both positive and negative reactions to consumer co-ops, the philosophy is gradually gaining acceptance, and the social concern demonstrated by the women in the movement has attracted notice. A Canadian co-op organization has shown interest in Taiwan's co-op movement, for example, and noted anti-cancer activist Li Chiu-liang has expressed a willingness to participate, as has cancer-stricken movie star May Chin. And mindful of the considerable spending power of consumers employed at the high-tech industrial park in Hsinchu, the co-op is planning to establish two outlets near there. No doubt the co-op movement will continue to grow as time goes by.
The Green Advocates Collective Buying Center delivers groceries during both daytime and evening hours to local outlets, where groups of co-op members have their team leaders collect the goods for everyone on the team. This system offers increased convenience to members.