Social Sustainability Meeting

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Next weekend I am going to the Integrated Network for Social Sustainability Annual Meeting in Charlotte, USA, where I will co-present a poster with Utrecht University’s Cristina Grasseni. The poster title is Food Sovereignty and Social Sustainability through Solidarity Economy Networks, and it fits into a meeting whose focus is to prioritize challenges for social sustainability.

Our poster presents work-in-progress insights into solidarity economies. We are looking at provisioning activism, or different ways people go about sourcing and buying the products they need in their daily lives.

To give an idea of what this means we are talking about groups of people who get together and form bulk-buying collectives or food coops, or run urban community gardens or community-supported agriculture. Projects also include the development of small workers’ cooperatives with ambitious plans to create “green” jobs for marginalized youth in post-industrial wastelands.

In practice these groups are organizing themselves in an attempt to replace supply chain consumerism in many fields with locally controlled networks. Initially limited to food, “provisioning activism” increasingly focuses on clothing, IT, renewable energy, green construction, recycling, mutual insurance, cooperative credit and local currency exchange.

In Italy we find Solidarity Economy Districts, areas within which different groups are based and help and deal with each other. In the USA we also find that groups cluster together. In Massachusetts we have the town of Worcester that acts as an informal focus point for groups that produce and distribute food, invest in locally owned and produced solar energy and are constructing a bio fuel plant where they can produce bio diesel from used vegetable oil collected from local restaurants.

This is not entirely a new idea though, 10 years ago a similar plant opened in the UK, see this post for a better explanation of the work pioneered by Sundance Renewables.

To give an idea of the scale of business, the main energy coop in Worcester takes $1.3 million a year in income, while in Italy a loose network of solidarity buying groups spends about 80 million Euro per annum, mainly on locally produced food.

The poster represents an overview of 7 years’ work for Dr. Grasseni, research that I too have participated in for that length of time. Her book Beyond Alternative Food Networks came out last year, and her move to Utrecht will allow her to expand her research field into the Netherlands.

For those of you who don’t know, the Netherlands is a leader in its approach to promoting locally sourced food, and has pushed forward into local institution and governmental collaboration, but plenty more on that to come in further posts as this research develops.

On a practical note it is 26 in the shade in North Carolina on Friday so I need to look for my shorts after a long and extremely cold winter, now where did I leave my Ray-Bans?

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Jonny Hankins

Author of the 2012 ebook "A Handbook for Responsible Innovation" (99c from Amazon), Jonny works for the Bassetti Foundation in Milan publishing articles on innovation and responsibility on their website and also blogging about his interests. He is on the editorial board of the Journal of Responsible Innovation and a member of the Integrated Network for Social Sustainability.

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