A co-op or cooperative is a collective of people who have organized to form a jointly-controlled company which meets a specific need, such as housing, provision of food, and so forth. In a classic example of a cooperative, people might form a co-op store to sell groceries at low cost to co-op members. Co-ops can be found all over the world, meeting a wide variety of needs, with very diverse memberships.
The cooperative movement dates to the time of the Industrial Revolution in Great Britain. During this period, factory workers were often forced to pay usurious prices at company stores, and they struggled to make ends meet. The impoverished lifestyle meant that most people had few chances to get ahead, and the same held true for their children. Over time, workers began to organize cooperatives to handle housing, food, banking, and other needs in a democratic way which served the cooperative members, rather than a company owner.
In a co-op, every member has a vote in the practices of the co-op, with many cooperatives having a scaled system of shares which allows some people greater control. The members work together to run the enterprise in a way which suits their best interests, typically generating minimal profits and sinking these profits into improvements. Co-ops may be worker owned, or they may be open to the general public as well, and they rely on cooperation of all members, often including volunteering and a willingness to take the rough with the smooth.
Cooperative banks, housing organizations, utilities, farms, and stores can be found all over the world. Many of these organizations foster a sense of community in addition to being run along democratic principles. For example, co-op housing often includes a main community building where meetings take place, classes are offered, and community members can meet to socialize tp discuss issues. Cooperative membership is often structured in a way which makes it accessible to people at all levels of income, and many co-ops have strict policies which are designed to prevent discrimination on the basis of race, religion, sexual orientation, class, and so forth.
Any number of goals can be met by a cooperative. For example, a building co-op might use resources and labor from its members to construct a community, and then disband once the need of the cooperative has been met. A co-op bookstore might be linked to a political organization or a college to raise funds for the larger organization, or a cooperative might be established to provide health care, investment advice, and a variety of other services to members.