What Worker Co-ops Can Learn from SSG

By Kenzie Love

The question of why some worker co-ops succeed while others do not has no simple answers. But one clear measure of “failure” would be for worker co-ops not to learn from the experiences their peers have had in navigating the challenges many of them face.

With over 20 years in business as a climate change adaptation and mitigation planning consultancy, Sustainability Solutions Group (SSG) has been a successful worker co-op by several measures, including receiving Co-operatives and Mutuals Canada’s Environmental Initiative of the Year award last month. But it has still had to grapple with questions about its size, vision, and values over the years. Jeremy Murphy, a longtime member and Principal, recently shared some insights gleaned on these issues during SSG’s journey.


Balancing Idealism with Realism

Like some other worker co-ops, SSG initially took what Murphy describes as a highly idealistic approach to various tasks, with all its members assuming a place on the rota for tasks such as bookkeeping and filing taxes. It eventually became clear, however, that this wasn’t the best use of resources.

“It became very inefficient to have people who weren’t necessarily specialists or experts in those roles,” says Murphy. “So it made sense to hire a bookkeeper. It made sense to hire someone to deal with human resources, etc., instead of us rotating through those roles. And then that freed up some of the rest of our time to focus excellence in project delivery and business development and refining how we got new work.”

Allowing for more specialization in its roles thus contributed to SSG fulfilling its broader mandate while remaining non-hierarchical in its structure.


Growing in a Sustainable Way

Growth for growth’s sake isn’t an aim of worker co-operatives, but how SSG has grown is instructive. The scope of its work has expanded, but it hasn’t strayed from its overall mission. It has added new members while still having a high retention rate for existing ones. And it’s done this while maintaining strong relationships among its members, even as most of them work at a distance from each other.

“Fostering that community, the different mechanisms for convening over distance has been really important,” says Murphy. “In growing our organization and keeping people informed and making sure everyone’s involved in decision making and the direction of the organization – I think that the lesson there is that it pays off to make those conscientious, concerted efforts. And if we didn’t make those efforts, we would just be more like any other consultancy and maybe we’d have more turnover. We’d have less ownership. We’d have less investment. We’d have less camaraderie, less community. And so I’m happy with the efforts that SSG has made to foster those things.”


Remaining True to Co-op Values

As is often the case, SSG was intentionally founded as a worker co-op because the principles, including democratic decision-making and concern for community, aligned with the founders’ values. Although the model thus made sense to SSG’s members, it wasn’t always an easy sell for outsiders, a not uncommon challenge.

“Some people gave us advice not to ever promote ourselves as a worker co-operative because it sounded too much like we were a not-for-profit, or there was just confusion over what it meant,” says Murphy. “And that we wouldn’t be competitive with the companies that we were competing with.”

But today, SSG unabashedly promotes itself as a worker co-op, recognizing that this is an asset rather than a liability. 

“We have no reservations about promoting ourselves as a co-op and trying to educate people as to what that means,” says Murphy. “And why it’s a superior business model. And how it benefits the work that we do.”