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News, analysis and commentary by UBC Journalism students

Chris Nichols, Jessica Valentine, and Maxim Piche

Success of local woodworking co-op mirrors growth of co-op businesses in B.C.

Co-operative businesses have increased by 20 per cent in B.C. the past five years

By Sean Yoon , in City , on November 23, 2016

Co-operative businesses have increased by 20 per cent in B.C. the past five years and there appears to be no end in sight as millennials move away from traditional profit-based models toward alternative models.

“People and especially millennials are tired of the traditional capitalist system and they are seeking new employment now that reflects their values. The widespread use of the internet has shifted power and democratised our economy in ways that were previously impossible,” said Catherine Dangerfield, an expert on banking strategy and financing for co-op businesses in Vancouver.

In 2009, Vancity released a discussion paper outlining the opportunities for the growth of B.C.’s co-op sector. Since then, B.C. Co-operative Association’s 2016 report on the state of co-op businesses in B.C. confirmed that B.C.’s co-op sector is growing and attracting millennials for work.

Sixteen per cent of surveyed co-op employees in B.C. are under 25 and one third of co-op employees say positions at co-ops were their first real job.

The Wood Shop

Piche working on a wooden shelf
Maxim Piche works on a shelf.

At the forefront of B.C.’s recent co-op development is Wood Shop, a Vancouver-based three-year-old co-op run by a group of young people who reclaim wood waste from the Lower Mainland and turn it into unique furniture.

Co-owner Chris Nichols said he opened the shop to provide meaningful work in a city where jobs are hard to find.

“That’s where co-op is a good model. It’s particularly attractive for young people looking for work, meaningful employment, or a way to service the community.”

Wood Shop’s vision goes beyond employment as it includes community building and sustainable business practices.

Cutting boards made by Wood Shop (photo courtesy of Wood Shop)
Cutting boards made by Wood Shop. (Photo: Wood Shop)

“We make our furniture out of 90 per cent upcycled, recycled, reclaimed wood. It’s important to us to reach out to community and form lots of community partnerships, bring people into the space, conduct talks and share our story,” said Nichols.

Along with commissioned work, Wood Shop hosts do-it-yourself workshops where their workers teach people how to build their own furniture with recycled wood.

Those who strive for value-based business

Co-ops allow people to work in a value-based environment, support their community, and work alongside people with a shared world-view. All of that attracts people to the co-op business model, states the 2016 report.

Milne in her office at UBC Sauder
Tamar Milne in her office at UBC Sauder School of Business.

Those kinds of values mean they are businesses that are likely to succeed.

Tamar Milne, a UBC lecturer with 20 years experience in marketing, believes that business success depends on whether those companies deliver on their promised values to society.

“If you think about companies you choose repeatedly, it’s because you know what you’re going to get and you get good value from it,” said Milne. “So when we layer in social and environmental responsibility, if they make a promise about something and don’t follow through on it, if they’re not clear on who they are and what they stand for — people won’t trust them.”

With that kind of risk present, co-ops are less likely to disappoint people because they share social values and support each other to succeed, forming a community, said Wood Shop’s Nichols. At Wood Shop, support first came from Vancity, which helped the group refinance a loan and move to their current workshop. Another partner was Modo, a car-share co-op that collaborated on a promotional event with Wood Shop.

Official statistics show that in 2015, approximately one million jobs in B.C. were from small businesses – a two-per-cent increase from 2014 and B.C.’s most notable growth in small-business employment since 2007.

That same growth is echoed in the co-op sector. In the last five years, co-ops in B.C. reported adding added more than over 3,000 jobs to the economy. By 2019, that figure is expected to grow by another 2,300 jobs.