In the Korean language, “han” refers to all living things on earth, while “salim” means to revive and give life. So the compound “Hansalim” means “save all living things”.

An ambitious name, but then Hansalim, Korea’s biggest consumers’ cooperative, is an ambitious project. Founded in 1986 as a single grocery store, it now has 284,000 consumer members, 2,000 producer members, 328 employees, 131 stores and a turnover in the millions of dollars ($160 million in 2009).

Hansalim is a cooperative association that produces environmentally friendly, organic products and organizes direct trade between farmers and consumers. Hansalim deals not only with food (like rice, grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, meat, seafood, dairy, jams, sauces, tofu, noodles, dumplings and snacks) but also books, cosmetics, eco-friendly detergents and toilet rolls. Food production follows agreed standards, for example using no pesticides or chemical fertilizers and avoiding artificial additives. Consumer members monitor all processes and help inspect production centres.

But Hansalim is much more than a distributor of fair-trade, organic products, as Gyu Ho Jeong, a researcher at Hansalim’s Moshim and Salim Institute explains: “Hansalim has been working under the slogan, ‘producer takes responsibility in consumer’s life and consumer takes responsibility in producer’s livelihood.’ So the unique quality of Hansalim is that we are not just working for the consumer’s rights and interests but also trying to build up a society where the urban area and the rural area, human and nature can coexist and develop together.”

Producer communities in rural areas and consumer members in urban areas cooperate together, trading directly through Hansalim’s own distribution system. Product prices are determined by consultation between producers and consumers, independent from the market’s price system. Hansalim producers own their own farms or processing facilities, and all products are delivered from production sites to consumers directly through the distribution centre, without any commission-based sales. Payments to producers account for 76% of the price structure, while the remaining 24% is used for transportation, labour and social activities “aimed at creating a better world.”

Hansalim headquarters in Seoul establishes the policy and strategy for the movement and coordinates business activities, while 20 local Hansalim cooperatives around Korea carry Hansalim products and coordinate environmental campaigns from the grassroots level. Community regeneration is currently a top priority. Says Gyu Ho Jeong: “We are working in various fields of activity, not just food, but also environment, welfare, education, autonomy and so on, to make our community more sustainable based on the empowerment of the organized members.”