ithin the last three years, several cooperative supermarkets have been founded in the major German cities: SuperCoop Berlin in 2020, Foodhub in Munich and SuperCoop Hamburg in 2021, and köllektiv in Cologne in 2022. Their model is the Park Slope Food Coop in Brooklyn, New York, founded in 1973. These cooperative supermarkets operate according to similar principles: All members of the cooperative are owners, employees, and consumers at the same time. They mimic conventional supermarkets in terms of their size and full-range offerings. Their vision, however, is to democratize the food system by making purchasing decisions collectively and running the supermarkets cooperatively rather than for profit. They join initiatives, such as weekly delivery boxes, food cooperatives, or community-supported agriculture, which aim to decommodify the food system by building alternative distribution systems (Rosol, 2020). They respond to the ‘global food crisis’ (Rosin et al. 2014) and the failure of the modern food system, which is characterized by the exploitation of people and nature and the unequal distribution of food, value creation, and the negative impacts of production.

In this essay, I draw on interviews held in 2023 (in German, quotes are translated by the author) with a founding member of SuperCoop Berlin, of köllektiv, and of Plattsalat, a predecessor of today’s models founded in Stuttgart in 1998. Inspired by the general claim of actor–network theory (ANT) that no actor can ever be considered in isolation but is co-determined by all other network components (Law 1992), this essay first explores how cooperative supermarkets maneuver within the corporate food regime (McMichael 2009). Second, the article relates the separation of different spheres in modern societies observed by ANT (Latour 1993) to the division of labor that emerged with modern industrial organization and analyzes how divisions blur in cooperative supermarkets. How can the food system be shaped differently and democratically by engaged citizens?

Diversifying Suppliers

These new kinds of supermarkets are organized as Genossenschaften (cooperatives) and are therefore owned jointly by all members. To become a member of a cooperative in Germany, interested parties have to buy a cooperative share. At SuperCoop Berlin and köllektiv, one has to buy two cooperative shares of 50 euros each, or more shares if members want to support the cooperative financially. Regardless of the number of shares acquired, each member has one vote in the general assembly of all members—the participation is therefore independent of the amount of capital contributed. At the general assembly, which takes place at least once a year, all important decisions are taken jointly. This includes the question of which products should be sold in the supermarkets and from which suppliers they should be sourced. SuperCoop Berlin currently has around 900 members. At the time of the interview, köllektiv was still looking for a shop space to open the supermarket but already had 200 members.

SuperCoop Berlin, “0852 active supermarket owners” (photo taken by the author, 2023)

Cooperative supermarkets have the opportunity to pursue alternative purchasing practices compared to conventional supermarkets and to diversify the food system. In Germany, the retail sector is highly concentrated, with the top five conventional food retailers controlling 76% of the market in 2022 (Statista, 2023a). In the organic food sector, the German Dennree Group is the largest wholesaler in Europe (turnover of 1.3 billion in 2022 [Statista 2023b]), with its own supermarket chain Denn’s being the second largest in Germany. Dennree is increasingly taking over the vertical value chain by buying up smaller local organic supermarket chains and converting the shops into Denn’s outlets, as recently happened in Stuttgart (BioHandel 2022). After the acquisition, Dennree terminated all pre-existing contracts with small local producers (member Plattsalat, 2023, personal communication).

SuperCoop Berlin and köllektiv have both jointly agreed on a catalog of criteria that states they will buy as fairly, regionally, and seasonally as possible. They mostly stick to the catalog but also try to be flexible with it when, for example, they have the possibility to purchase conventional products at a cheaper price due to overproduction. SuperCoop Berlin buys its products among others from a number of small producers from Berlin and the surrounding area of Brandenburg (member SuperCoop Berlin, 2023, personal communication). köllektiv also plans to source from small producers (member köllektiv, 2023, personal communication). SuperCoop Berlin does not negotiate prices but asks what price the supplier considers appropriate for the production of a particular product and then considers if their members will buy the product at that price (member SuperCoop Berlin, 2023, personal communication).

The cooperatives can be an alternative for small producers whose sales opportunities are limited by the increasing consolidation of the food system. However, there are also limits to sourcing from small-scale local producers regarding personnel capacity because the more direct suppliers and producers you have, the more effort it takes to coordinate them (member SuperCoop Berlin, 2023, personal communication). Therefore, the supermarkets are still dependent on regional organic wholesalers who obtain their products from selected suppliers locally and globally and distribute regionally. In addition, the question of whether discounted conventional or foodsharing products should be offered in supermarkets is a question of political attitude, as the member of Plattsalat notes. www.foodsharing.de is an internet platform for distributing surplus food in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland. Volunteer food savers pick up food from participating retailers and producers and redistribute it to private individuals. According to the member of Plattsalat, the founding members of the cooperative supermarkets having professional backgrounds in economics or software, rather than agriculture, means that many of the new initiatives “have no political consciousness regarding trade and no awareness that collective action or resistance against certain things could somehow be effective” (member Plattsalat, 2023, personal communication). He raises the question whether offering discounted conventional products in the cooperative supermarkets stabilizes the conventional food system rather than offering an alternative as it is a convenient way for conventional supermarkets to get rid of their oversupply.

Undoing the Division of Labor

“We want community instead of profit.”
—köllektiv, 2023 (author’s translation)

What is special about the new cooperative supermarkets is that all members are obliged to work at least three hours a month in the supermarket—at the counter, stocking shelves, or doing other tasks that arise. Besides that, SuperCoop Berlin meanwhile has six permanent employees for tasks such as purchasing or personnel planning. In addition to the 200 regular members, the köllektiv has 35–40 members who voluntarily continue to work on the organization and opening of the supermarket in various working groups. The supermarkets operate on a non-profit basis, sell the products at net cost price to their members, and are only open to them. Nevertheless, while köllektiv is still working on its financing plan, it is still necessary for SuperCoop Berlin to add 23% margin on the products sold, which on average a bit less than a commercial supermarket. The 23% plus membership fees pay the permanent staff and service the loan that had to be taken out to open the supermarket. However, once the loan is paid off, the margin will decrease significantly.

It was “completely unthinkable” (member Plattsalat, 2023, personal communication) at the time of the founding of Plattsalat in 1998 that the members would also work in the shop. At Plattsalat, working in the shop is not mandatory. A study commissioned by the German Cooperative Association notes a renaissance of cooperatives, which is explained by the fact that, in times of crisis, there is a stronger desire to participate in crafting and shaping an economy based on solidarity (Genossenschaftsverband and zukunftsinstitut 2022). In addition, the work in the supermarket also functions as a way for the members to meet others, to connect and be social, and to be part of a community.

The supermarkets bring down the division of labor, which has been associated with the rise of capitalism and industrialization. The division of labor describes the division of tasks in an economic system with the aim of arranging work processes as efficiently as possible and specializing the labor force. Adam Smith considered the division of labor as the major factor of economic progress because, through increased efficiency, it would lead to the growth of output and to trade (Smith 2000 [1776]). Karl Marx asserted that the division of labor leads to the alienation of humans from their work, the product of their work, and also from others (Marx 2015 [1844]). In the supermarkets, divisions blur in two ways: First, the members are consumers, co-workers, and meaningful crafters at the same time as they commonly own the supermarket and everyone has the right to vote at the general assembly. Second, not only will members be able to shop at cheaper prices in the future because of their involvement in the supermarket, but the boundaries between the economic sphere of wage labor and the social also become blurred.

The possibility to participate and work in the supermarket has to be regarded in its general societal context, however. The member of SuperCoop Berlin reports that, in terms of the professional background of its members, there is a peak among students and people of retirement age, i.e. people who are not yet fully or no longer of working age and who, for this reason, are still or again more flexible in their time management (2023, personal communication).

Cooperative Wholesaling and Engaged Food System Crafters

From an ANT perspective, the following conclusions can be drawn for the construction of alternatives in the food sector: Cooperative supermarkets do not exist in isolation but mutually stabilize with other actors in the system. The supermarkets could stabilize with a sustainable, small-scale, and regional production, which increasingly loses sales markets due to the consolidation of the food system. Due to the size of the cooperative supermarkets, collectively organized logistics for regional small-scale production would be conceivable (member Plattsalat, 2023, personal communication). Regarding access to agricultural land (Kumnig and Rosol 2021) as well as agricultural production, there are many examples of cooperative ways of organizing (Boddenberg et al. 2017). The question of what should and should not be sourced and sold—and thus what should and should not be stabilized—then requires a political decision. This way a network of alternative food production and consumption could emerge that is clearly demarcated from the conventional food system and does not run the risk of being reappropriated by the corporate food regime.

Moreover, the blurring of realms that we find in cooperative supermarkets enables a redefinition of work: from work as wage labor for progress and growth toward work as the joy of collective and meaningful crafting and toward socializing, connecting, and communicating. However, civic engagement should not be reduced to volunteerism. The founding members of köllektiv initiated and organized the supermarket alongside their 40-hour workweek and without any financial reimbursement (member köllektiv, 2023, personal communication). Of course, the supermarkets offer their members cheaper products in return for their work. However, in times of spreading ‘bullshit jobs’ (Graeber 2018), we should return to lived democracy and engaged citizenship as meaningful work (Heidenreich 2022), which requires new forms of distribution of time and money that can, for example, be found in discussions about an unconditional basic income (Graeber 2018; Ketterer 2019). Cooperative supermarkets allow us to re-think the relation between labor and democracy in a way that is worth pursuing.


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Christiane Tristl is a heterodox economic geographer at Münster University. Her research focuses on big tech-companies and digital technologies, the marketization of water in a South-North perspective, critical agri-food-studies and the unearthing of alternative presents.