We’re used to thinking about and celebrating democracy in the political realm, but what if we encouraged it as principle in our economy as well?

Economic democracy refers to grassroots, customer participation in the decision-making of a local business. For example, under an economic democracy paradigm, consumers can (usually for a small fee) become stakeholder members in a company’s governance. Such an exchange benefits customers and business owners reciprocally — with owners offering constituent members a voice in policy decisions while patrons then become more deeply invested into the company’s longevity.

Using economic democracy as a method of operating a business stands out from the usual capitalist practice of decisions and policy emanating from a top-level board or CEO. However, economic democracy does not aim to dismantle capitalism itself. To the contrary: In theory, and often in practice, drawing on existing patrons for governmental support yields greater profits for both owners and members.

Another plus of building an economic democracy ethos into a business is that the proprietors can decide what level of customer involvement suits their needs.

Independent grocery stores here in the Triad represent some of the ways economic democracy practices can adapt to local realities, such as investor type and geographic location.

With the Renaissance Community Co-op set to open in October, Greensboro residents have the opportunity to observe solution-focused economic democracy in action. Because Greensboro’s hunger and food desert problems constitute a city-wide problem, the co-op connects city and private funders with community stakeholders to form a coalition that embodies a hybrid form of economic democracy.

Winston-Salem’s Triad Food Buying Co-op inhabits another portion of the economic democracy spectrum — one that de-emphasizes profit and encourages volunteer cooperation. The Winston-Salem Co-op “is a member-owned and operated” enterprise that presents “an alternative to commercial profit-oriented” companies, according to its website. In High Point, the Budding Artichoke boasts a owner-farmer collaboration and community classes, while its structure remains that of a for-profit company.

These food-retailer examples illustrate only some of the ways economic democracy could take shape within Triad businesses.

What about a worker-owned dive bar? Or a barbershop that has an organizational board comprised of its haircut clients? Or a clothing shop where trendy kids can vote on the styles they want sourced?

The possibilities are as infinite as Triad business owners’ imaginations, and as concrete as the customers they love to serve. Why not give economic democracy a try?

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