"At last, you don't have to have any contradictions between your politics and your pocketbook." Co-op America began spreading that message in the spring of 1982, and socially conscious consumers, many of them veterans of various causes begun in the '60s and before, responded.
Today, the Washington-based nonprofit consumer organization has grown to about 350-400 organization members and 23,000-plus individual members across the country.
"From the point of view of the Gross National Product," says founder and executive director Paul Freundlich, 48, "we don't exist. Otherwise, we're either a fly on an elephant or a fly in the ointment, depending on your perspective."
Noting that people can be successful financially and "still be true to their social conscience," Freundlich says his organization is not trying to set itself and its members off in "some sort of separatist environment. What we're really concerned with is changing the way America does business.
"We want to create opportunities for people who already have social values and environmental values and we want to move traditional business in that direction." The aim, says Freundlich, is to offer traditional business a set of opportunities as well as a challenge.
Among Co-op America's services:
Health and term insurance plans through Consumers United Insurance Co., a worker-owned, worker-managed, Washington-based company. The health plan includes both traditional and alternative health-care services.
Building Economic Alternatives, a quarterly magazine with articles and information on cooperatives, networking, social and environmental issues and resources.
Access to socially and environmentally responsible investment, banking and savigs services.
Twice-a-year alternative marketplace catalogues with a variety of products -- ranging from clothing and food to Third World crafts and children's items -- "plus the satisfaction of knowing that you are joining with hard-working, community-based groups to build a responsible economy."
Individual members are drawn from across the country and represent a broad spectrum in terms of age, income and education. Nearly three-fourths are under age 44, with slightly more than half female.
More than 80 percent attended school beyond high school, with nearly 35 percent holding college degrees.
Slightly more than one-fifth the individual members report annual incomes of between $20,000-$30,000, with 17 percent earning less than $10,000 per year and slightly more than 15 percent earning above $40,000 per year.
"I like the information dissemination aspect of Co-op America," says HUD policy analyst David Sears. "Since most co-ops are locally based, it's an opportunity for someone who's doing something in California that's interesting or innovative to share it with people elsewhere."
Mary Tucker, 35, and a single parent with two children, says she was drawn to the organization by its health insurance plan, "a policy that offered a lot to me and at the same time wasn't outrageously expensive."
Also, says Tucker, director of Jobs in Energy, a nonprofit technical assistance organization dealing with energy issues, Co-op America fits in nicely with her social values. Charles Taber, 60, a lobbyist and retired civil servant, echoes similar sentiments. A member of Co-op America for a couple of years, Taber says he likes "the idea of the cooperative movement as a community of people providing for their own best interests."
Membership -- $15 for individuals and $50 for organizations -- is expected to hit 50,000 next spring.
Freundlich says his organization liistens -- and responds -- to its members. "We had a case where one organization made a reasonable case for itself, was accepted and had products in the catalogue."
After the catalogue came out, Co-op America received a letter from three of the company's workers stating, "We read all your literature, we work here and the two don't match. We think we have a fine product but we don't think our particular business should be in the Co-op America catalogue if you folks are real."
Freundlich brought the matter to his board of directors, talked with the owner of the company and found contradictions. "There was not a participatory sense in that workplace that was consistent with the kind of values we are trying to develop.
"We asked them to withdraw their product from the catalogue."