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Scaling Up: The Convergence of Social Economy and Sustainability




For those seeking transitions to socio-ecological sustainability,
thanks for your inventiveness. This book is for the rest of you



List of Tables and Figures




Social Economics and Sustainability


Mike Gismondi, Sean Connelly, Mary Beckie, Sean Markey, and Mark Roseland


Towards Convergence: An Exploratory Framework


Sean Connelly, Mike Gismondi, Sean Markey, and Mark Roseland


The Green Social Economy in British Columbia and Alberta


Mike Gismondi, Lynda Ross, and Juanita Marois


The Role of the Social Economy in Scaling Up Alternative Food Initiatives


Mary Beckie and Sean Connelly


Human Services and the Caring Society


John Restakis


Towards Sustainable Resource Management: Community Energy and Forestry in British Columbia and Alberta


Julie L. MacArthur


Evolving Conceptions of the Social Economy: The Arts, Culture, and Tourism in Alert Bay


Kelly Vodden, Lillian Hunt, and Randy Bell


Non-Profit and Co-operative Organizations and the Provision of Social Housing


George Penfold, Lauren Rethoret, and Terri MacDonald


Land Tenure Innovations for Sustainable Communities


Marena Brinkhurst and Mark Roseland


Sustaining Social Democracy Through Heritage-Building Conservation


Noel Keough, Mike Gismondi, and Erin Swift-Leppäkumpu


Strong Institutions, Weak Strategies: Credit Unions and the Rural Social Economy


Sean Markey, Freya Kristensen, and Stewart Perry


“Social Economizing” Sustainability


Mike Gismondi, Sean Connelly, and Sean Markey


List of Contributors

Tables and Figures


FIGURE 2.1       Environment-related activities of ESE organizations in Alberta and BC

FIGURE 2.2       Primary environmental mission for Alberta ESE organizations

FIGURE 2.3       Primary environmental mission for BC ESE organizations

FIGURE 2.4       Primary social mission for Alberta ESE organizations

FIGURE 2.5       Primary social mission for BC ESE organizations

FIGURE 2.6       Growth of ESE organizations in Alberta and BC from 1914 to 2010

FIGURE 2.7       Geographic Range Served by ESE organizations in Alberta and BC

FIGURE 2.8       Type of support given by ESE organizations in Alberta and BC to other organizations

FIGURE 2.9       Sources of revenue for ESE organizations in Alberta and BC

FIGURE 2.10     Total revenues of ESE organizations in Alberta

FIGURE 2.11     Total revenues of ESE organizations in BC

FIGURE 2.12     Market-based activities of ESE organizations in Alberta and BC

FIGURE 9.1       Aerial view of the construction of the Gibson Block

FIGURE 9.2       Gibson Block, 2006

FIGURE 9.3       The Alex Taylor School, Edmonton

FIGURE 9.4       The Old Y Building, Calgary

FIGURE 9.5       Hillhurst Cottage School, Calgary


TABLE 1.1         Characteristics of weak and strong sustainable community development

TABLE 1.2         Characteristics of weak and strong social economy

TABLE 1.3         Characteristics of strong social economy, strong sustainable community development

TABLE 2.1         Primary work sectors

TABLE 2.2         Employment in Alberta and BC: Number of organizations and jobs

TABLE 2.3         Revenue: ESE organizations in Alberta and BC

TABLE 5.1         Where the dollars go: A comparison of different project-ownership structures

TABLE 7.1         The affordable housing continuum

TABLE 8.1         Strengths and weaknesses of six land tenure approaches

TABLE 10.1       Characteristics of credit unions studied

TABLE 11.1       Food: Summary of findings

TABLE 11.2       Social care: Summary of findings

TABLE 11.3       Energy and natural resources: Summary of findings

TABLE 11.4       Eco-cultural tourism: Summary of findings

TABLE 11.5       Housing, transport, and community land trusts: Summary of findings

TABLE 11.6       Heritage-building conservation: Summary of findings

TABLE 11.7       Financing and sustainability: Summary of findings


Our work emerges from seven years of research as part of the British Columbia–Alberta Social Economy Research Alliance, or BALTA (socialeconomy-bcalberta.ca). The editors would like to thank all our friends associated with BALTA and with its Scaling Innovation for Sustainability project (balta-sis.ca).

We gratefully acknowledge research funding support from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada and from our home universities: Athabasca University, the University of Alberta, the University of Otago/Te Whare Wānanga o Otāgo, and Simon Fraser University.

Thanks also to each of our co-authors and to the many graduate student researchers, social economy practitioners, and community friends who helped compile research notes and case study information, many of whom are named alongside the case studies in the text.

Cheers to Don McNair for his careful reading and suggestions. And a special thanks to Mike Lewis and Stuart Wulff, BALTA’s heart and soul, for their leadership, inspiration, and steady hands.


Social Economics and Sustainability

Mike Gismondi, Sean Connelly, Mary Beckie, Sean Markey, and Mark Roseland

When we began this project, our perspective on the social economy and sustainability was based on our work as theorists and practitioners active in the environmental movement. Over the years, however, that viewpoint has changed through our participation in an alliance of academics and community practitioners whose mandate was to research the role of the social economy in western Canada. This experience brought us into contact with many leaders from Canada’s co-operative and enterprising non-profit and community development sectors. While we had been building the environmental movement, they had been building—some of them for over forty years—the social economy movement and its networks.

We discovered that social economics is connected to all aspects of sustainability: ecological conservation, social justice, gender equity, cultural health and continuity, human well-being, and ethical responsibility for future generations. More importantly, we found in the practice of social economics new strategic directions for both the politics of sustainability and the organizational and institutional setup of sustainability alternatives. We saw how local, democratic organizations can advance ecological and social sustainability. By the very initiatives that they define and carry out, often to meet basic needs in a community or region, these small organizations practice sustainability. They “social economize” sustainability, you might say.

While we see a convergence occurring between social economics and sustainability, we do not want to overstate the wonders of the social economy. Let’s be frank: the theory and praxis of sustainability are a mess. At the same time, our transition to sustainability is no longer a choice but an imperative. Today’s coincidence of climate change, degradation of planetary ecosystems, and global financial uncertainty poses a threat to all communities. For some, the threat is more immediate than for others. The relocalization of economies may be a way both to protect environments and to empower the most vulnerable of populations. The crucial question is whether the transition to a relocalized economy can be accomplished in a manner that is low carbon, ecologically sustainable, and socially fair.

In Scaling Up, we explore the possibility of a just transition to sustainability: one that is sustainable in social, economic, and environmental terms. We assess a number of initiatives in social economics and sustainability in western Canada. In light of that experience, we argue that the social economy sector is a small but effective piece of the transition challenge. Indeed, social economy leaders are old hands at running robust, resilient institutions and networks that can advance the sustainability agenda. In the chapters to follow, contributors examine issues ranging from attainable, affordable housing and local capital financing to local food and community-based energy. They show how these development issues link to issues of state power and structural change, which are concerns common to communities all over the world. They explore obstacles and challenges to achieving structural change, as well as strategies for deepening and broadening the impact of innovation and for interconnecting, horizontally and democratically, across the wider “green” social economy.

The innovations discussed in this book have been proven to work at the local level, but the question remains of how to deepen and broaden their extent—how to scale them up and out so as to create structural and societal change. Scaling up means escalating the impact of a particular innovation within the sector in which it operates, from community to city, from region to nation. Scaling out means taking innovations that have proven effective in one place, extending their impact through diffusion and adaptation into new geographical locations and new sectors. But scaling an innovation successfully often requires changing the very social and technological systems that make our current way of life unsustainable. The spread of these innovations implies profound changes in social systems of provision, in democratic practices and beliefs, and in state policies and economic power. In order for sustainability innovations to grow, the right conditions must be introduced. Strategic interventions and support mechanisms are required. Change will be resisted. The politics and practice of transition will be difficult, to say the least.

Notwithstanding the obvious challenges to altering the dominant capitalist system, the examples that we profile here demonstrate the emergence of innovative, democratic ways to create change. In chapter 1, Sean Connelly, Mike Gismondi, Sean Markey, and Mark Roseland introduce the concepts of social economy and sustainable community development and the connections between them. They set out the distinction between strong and weak sustainability initiatives, emphasize the need to take ecology seriously, and explore the social economizing of sustainability. Chapter 2, by Mike Gismondi, Lynda Ross, and Juanita Marois, offers a sociohistorical account of the social economy in Alberta and British Columbia and, using survey data, paints a picture of the current green social economy sector in both provinces. In chapter 3, Mary Beckie and Sean Connelly present examples of various ways in which people are relocalizing and resocializing food. They demonstrate that consumer demand for local food is growing, in part motivated by concerns about health, food safety, and environmental stewardship but also based in the desire of consumers to reconnect with farmers and the land. In chapter 4, John Restakis introduces social care as part of the sustainability equation. Challenging the status quo, he claims that the provision and consumption of human services is not the same as the production and consumption of material goods. His story of social co-ops in Italy emphasizes the importance of focusing on relational goods. Julie MacArthur discusses energy and sustainability in chapter 5. Faced with the dual challenge of climate change and uncertain future energy supplies and costs, how will we find the clean energy needed to run local economies? Her work addresses the power of capitalism and the challenge of developing renewables democratically to engage local people in ownership and profits. She offers strategies for launching an energy innovation and for scaling out a successful project from its originating community to a wider area. In chapter 6, Kelly Vodden, Lillian Hunt, and Randy Bell demonstrate how ecology, tourism and economic activity, and culture intertwine in First Nations’ efforts to strengthen community resilience. They stress the importance of culture and sense of place for generating the capacity of First Nations to take an active role in the protection and promotion of their cultural heritage. The tourism and economic development proposals discussed in this chapter involve local environmental management as well as alliances with other communities, private businesses, the state, environmental groups, and non-profit organizations in the region.

In chapter 7, George Penfold, Lauren Rethoret, and Terri MacDonald explain how affordable, attainable housing is critical to sustainability. In their review of housing research in British Columbia, they found that challenges differ in rural and urban settings. Replicating successful community projects from one place in other communities or across a wider region has not been shown to be successful, particularly in rural Canada. In chapter 8, Marena Brinkhurst and Mark Roseland show how collective land ownership and community control over land can be linked to sustainability. They explore a variety of land tenure models that can increase community control over the use of land for local housing, agriculture, and even wind farms or other energy projects. A partnership of a non-profit group, a land trust, and a municipality is a highly effective way to reduce land costs for a housing project, a cultural arts building, a farmers’ market, a social care co-op, a community kitchen, or a building for local food storage and distribution. Any discussion of multistakeholder coalitions, whose construction is far from easy, turns our attention to engaging the power of government, at all levels, to meld sustainability and social economy, a theme that arises across other chapters as well. Yes, inertia and ingrained habits must be overcome. Trust is also a challenge, as are the oppositional interests and influence of private capital and the managers of incumbent systems who are keen to maintain the status quo. But the role of the state remains important.

In chapter 9, Noel Keough, Mike Gismondi, and Erin Swift-Leppäkumpu claim that heritage conservation can contribute to sustainability in built environments. They show that the repurposing of unused, derelict, or failing older buildings can rejuvenate neighbourhoods. The preservation of heritage buildings conserves embedded energy, reduces demolition waste, cancels out the energy costs of new construction, and preserves architectural elements that define the character of city neighbourhoods and their buildings. Moreoever, the memory of a building’s previous uses and its social meanings are recovered as well. The authors demonstrate that involvement of municipal planners and support from higher levels of government is key to such preservation initiatives. In chapter 10, Sean Markey, Freya Kristensen, and Stewart Perry discuss the financing of the social economy. They analyze the uneven effectiveness of most rural credit unions in supporting community development and explore Vancity Credit Union as an example of a large credit union (Canada’s largest, in fact) that, through engagement in a wide range of initiatives, promotes both social innovation and sustainability.

Throughout the book, we provide examples of green social economy organizations. Each outlines the sustainability issue and social economy mission and its transformative potential.

The many small social economy sustainability initiatives found across western Canada can be thought of as seeds of innovation, a recurring metaphor in this volume. Each initiative strategizes differently to provide an alternative narrative to that of the dominant economy. Collectively, these stories demonstrate that democratic institutions, social markets, a socio-ecological ethos, and coalition building provide a nurturing environment for incremental and transformative change. It’s all part of a growing global movement for sustainability and social justice. While some seeds may fall on stone, many others hold the promise of spring.

1   Towards Convergence

An Exploratory Framework

Sean Connelly, Mike Gismondi, Sean Markey, and Mark Roseland

The roots of the modern environmental movement in the Western world can be traced to the publication of Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring in 1962. The book was a very public wake-up call of our human impact on the environment. Supported by meticulous research, Carson clearly outlined the devastating environmental costs of America’s postwar economic progress. A decade later, in The Limits to Growth, Donella Meadows and colleagues measured the thresholds of the earth’s ecosystem and horizons of resource exhaustion. Our Common Future (1987), the report of the United Nations’ Brundtland Commission, warned of increasing environmental degradation, as well as the challenges of underdevelopment and the growing gap between the world’s rich and poor. The report asked current generations to reduce consumption and conserve ecosystems for future generations—to practice what the report termed sustainable development. As government and business embraced the term in the 1990s, however, many in the environmental movement began to reject it. They feared that its original meaning had been co-opted by corporate messages equating sustainable development with more rapid economic growth allegedly intended to alleviate poverty, increase productivity and consumption standards, and diversify economies (Block 1912 Collective 2007; Rees 1990). As Tim O’Riordan put it (2007, 325), “Sustainable development has become a universal phrase. It means everything, and is in danger of meaning nothing.”

In this discussion of the transition to sustainability, we return to centre stage the complex of ecological limits, social inequalities, and moral obligations encompassed by the term sustainable development when it was first introduced by the Brundtland Commission. Neither economies nor ecosystems have stood still since Brundtland. If anything, the politics of sustainability has entered a new stage. Today, some 60 percent of the planet’s ecosystems are at risk (Millennium Ecosystem Assessment 2005). Greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are rising year after year. The demand for oil has far surpassed the supply of conventionally produced oil, so governments and corporations are turning to unconventional sources that are much more costly to extract, both financially and environmentally (Davidson and Gismondi 2011). With the rapid decline in the price of oil in 2014 and 2015, the future of investments in these unconventional supplies is being questioned. Investments in unconventional oil run the risk of being stranded assets, with commentators such as the Governor of the Bank of England, President of the World Bank and the U.S. President referring to the vast majority of these and older reserves like coal being un-burnable (Rusbridger, 2015). The certainty of a steady future supply of energy is in doubt (Aleklett et al. 2010; IEA 2008, 2010). Furthermore, leading scientists now argue that we have breached critical planetary boundaries. Global patterns of climate change, resource exhaustion, species extinctions, and environmental pollution confirm that we have surpassed ecological and thermodynamic limits. Only a massive reduction in carbon usage and emissions over the next fifty years can correct our error (Barnosky et al. 2012).

In addition to these disturbing trends, social inequality remains high, both globally and locally. In the past, unsustainable practices and ways of being were justified through their development benefits. In simple terms, burning fossil fuels in the present could be traded-off for rising incomes, with the expectation that rising incomes would result in more sustainable practices in the future. Evidence of increasing inequality and worsening environmental conditions suggests such an argument is not tenable. Today, the effects of unsustainability are often unanticipated and unpredictable, and continuing along the path we are on will endanger the livelihoods of millions well into the future (Rockstrom et al. 2009). Poor and marginal populations are the most vulnerable (AtKisson 2011; Srinivasan et al. 2008; Urry 2011). As changes in the ecosystem accelerate, we must accelerate our response. Radical change is needed.

How can we respond quickly and effectively to this sustainability challenge? Information is not enough, that much we know. We cannot just put information in front of decision-makers and wait for them to make the right decisions. Nor can we expect information—even the best information—to change public behaviour or to cause firms and states to steer economies wisely and equitably towards sustainability. Nothing short of a seismic shift in consumption, technologies, values, and political organization will suffice (Shove 2010; Shove and Spurling, 2013).

In this book, the contributors argue that the social economy is strategic to this great change. Research has shown that the social economy has the potential to be catalytic—as having the potential to lead a transition to a more humanized economy, one that is attentive to local and global sustainability (Bouchard 2013; Buchs et al., 2011; Connelly 2010; Gertler 2006; Gibson-Graham, Cameron, and Healy, 2013; Gismondi & Cannon, 2012; Restakis 2010, 2011; Wittman, Beckie, and Hergesheimer 2012). Our perspective is also based on some foundational principles of social economics: the interdependence of parts within the whole, a dependence on robust democratic institutions, and innovation that is locally defined and controlled to meet sustainably a community’s or a region’s basic needs for energy, food, shelter, and work.

The transition to a more sustainable economy has barely begun. The power and politics involved in maintaining the status quo are daunting. Yet change is underway. The intentional adoption and merging of the alternative structures, principles, and practices of sustainability and social economics may facilitate a just transition to sustainability.


Most readers are probably familiar with the social economy. If you volunteer in your community, you are part of it. So, too, if you are a member of a credit union or a non-profit society. You encounter the social economy if you participate in a community centre or support a women’s shelter, live in a housing co-operative, or shop at a social enterprise.

But let’s be more specific. The social economy can be understood as a “third system” of the economy, in addition to the public and private systems. In this third system, citizens take action to satisfy their own and others’ needs by working together in some way (Pearce 2003). The social economy includes non-profit organizations whose actions enhance communities socially, economically, and environmentally, often with a focus on disadvantaged community members (Neamtan 2009). The social economy, according to some writers, encompasses the work of any democratically controlled organization whose mission is both social and economic in nature (Amin, Cameron, and Hudson 2002; Lionais and Johnstone 2009; McMurtry 2009a; Neamtan 2009). Some define social economy organizations as those groups whose members and supporters are fired by the principle of reciprocity. Such groups pursue economic, social, and environmental goals through the social control of capital, including the use of market mechanisms, to pursue explicit social and environmental objectives (Lewis 2006; Restakis 2006; see also Fairbairn 2009; Neamtan and Anderson 2010; and Pearce 2003).

How big is the social economy? Researchers estimate that it generates $79.1 billion (7.8%) of Canada’s annual gross domestic product and employs over two million people (Amyot, Downing, and Tremblay 2010, 14–15). And it is growing rapidly. (See chapter 2 for figures on British Columbia and Alberta.) The size, scope, and impact of the social economy, however, differ from region to region. In Québec, the social economy is large and well known and is recognized as a distinct form of economic activity with its own social and cultural values. The Chantier de l’économie sociale acts as the social economy’s umbrella organization in that province, unifying an array of non-profit groups, mutual associations, co-operatives, and community economic development initiatives. The organization has thus been able to secure legitimacy and support from the Province, universities, and public policy research centres (Bouchard 2013).

Elsewhere in Canada, the social economy is not as well recognized by either the public or government, despite a long history of community action in response to social and economic restructuring. All the same, its work and impact are significant. Numerous non-profit societies, co-operatives, mutual associations, and foundations pursue economic activities on behalf of vulnerable individuals and groups: farmers, rural resource communities, the urban poor, and other disadvantaged populations.


Two recent English Canadian books explore Canada’s social economy in depth, analyzing how it is organized and what it does (McMurtry 2009b; Quarter, Mook, Armstrong 2009). Surprisingly, ecological sustainability is rather marginal to both of these studies: in the words of John Pearce (2003, 43), “It should be axiomatic that an enterprise which has a social purpose will have a clear positive environmental policy, for to be environmentally irresponsible is to be socially irresponsible.” Graham Smith (2005, 125) speaks of “the mutual, common or general interest that is fundamental to the ethos of the social economy”: surely, environmental sustainability is in the common interest of us all.

The engagement of social economy actors with environmental sustainability has been uneven, but it is growing (Smith 2005). We propose that a serious effort to bring about a convergence of the social economy with critical sustainability theory and practice can create a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. This book is about social economy organizations that grapple with sustainability in its fullest sense: their structures, like their enterprises, target a triple bottom line of mutual economic, environmental, and social sustainability. Although the examples explored in this volume are all located in western Canada, we recognize that they are part of something bigger. As Nancy Neamtan, the past president of the Chantier de l’économie sociale, reminds us, “the social economy has grown into a global movement. It does not only respond to the repercussions of repetitive crises. It proposes an alternative: a pluralist and inclusive economy within a framework of sustainable development” (Neamtan 2009, 1).

It is essential, however, that environmental sustainability be integrated into the politics and practice of the social economy. The reverse is also true. Some environmental researchers and activists ask which social and economic practices and values align well with sustainability. They recognize a need to “social economize” sustainability in order to increase the impact of sound practices (Connelly, Markey, and Roseland 2011). The effort to connect the two fields, in terms of both research and practice, has just begun. Little attention has been paid, for example, to what such a convergence could do for social sustainability. In this book, we attempt to begin filling that gap. We investigate how innovations from both movements might be united, thereby accelerating the transition to sustainability.

We explore this potential as it relates to a number of the basic needs associated with life and livelihood. The case examples herein cover such topics as local food, transportation, housing, social inclusion, job creation, heritage conservation, tourism, land, finance, and advocacy. Each chapter begins with “green social economy” innovations in western Canada, followed by a discussion of patterns emerging in other parts of Canada or internationally. For decades, practitioners in the areas of environmental sustainability and social economics have known and respected each other. Occasionally, they have even worked on projects together. But something new is afoot. Something is driving innovative connections of thought and practice. This book aims to expand and strengthen those connections.


The concept of “sustainable development,” while broadly recognized, is interpreted in different and often competing ways (Mebratu 1998). Early discussions of sustainable development concentrated on conservation of non-human nature and management of the environment. Today, sustainable development encompasses issues of employment, equality, and the economy (Edwards 2005). The concept itself has been subject to much criticism because its ambiguity leaves it open to widely different interpretations (Dale 2001; Keiner 2004; Robinson 2004; Sneddon, Howarth, and Norgaard 2006). Indeed, many argue that the concept is used to perpetuate overconsumption and the destruction of ecosystems driven by the process of capital accumulation (Johnston, Gismondi, and Goodman 2006). In addition, much discussion of sustainable development occurs at a level of abstraction that means little to the general public (Bridger and Luloff 1999).

Weak-Strong Sustainable Community Development

Critics make a significant distinction between sustainable development and sustainable community development, or SCD. Responding to the severe limitations of mainstream models of economic growth and of sustainability and ecological modernization, SCD applies sustainable development at the local level, with an emphasis on providing essentials like food, shelter, and clean air and water (McMurtry 2002). In the SCD model, democratic processes enable citizens and their governments to channel diverse values, visions, and activities into a program of change (Roseland 2012). SCD has had its successes. It has combined environmental and economic concerns at the local level by, for example, integrating green jobs with low-growth economics and eco-efficiency. Yet this approach has failed to come to grips with such social justice issues as equal access to an acceptable quality of life for all members of society (Agyeman and Evans 2004; Jones 2008). For its part, the social economy has long supported marginalized individuals and communities through job training, social enterprise, affordable housing, and the like. Yet only recently have social economy actors begun to think more critically about what it means to integrate environmental issues into its mandate.

As with sustainable development in general (Rees 1991, 1995; Williams and Millington 2004), it is helpful to consider SCD in terms of a “weak” to “strong” continuum, depending on how problems and solutions are perceived (see table 1.1). Weak SCD recognizes that economic growth has to address environmental issues in some way but does not challenge the concept of economic growth. This approach assumes that environmental (and social) problems are offset by advances elsewhere: in other words, such advantages as greater cost efficiency, manufactured capital, or scientific insights counterbalance a depletion of natural capital. For example, hydroelectricity generation and job creation compensate for the loss of a wetland when a dam is built. These gains are presumed to outweigh losses to the ecosystem and its social and cultural role in people’s lives.

Table 1.1 Characteristics of weak and strong sustainable community development


Weak SCD

Strong SCD

World view


Rational individuals

Biocentric/biotic rights

Collective action

Role of economy

Economic growth


Qualitative development

Community based

Source of problem and solution

Supply problem


Use of Environmental Impact Assessments, cost-benefit analysis


Demand problem

Social relationships

Small scale decentralization


In contrast, strong SCD recognizes the finite nature of the earth and the need to reduce demands on all its life systems and realizes that the depletion of natural capital may have irreversible or, at best, uncertain consequences. Strong SCD assumes that the idea that manufactured capital can “substitute” for natural capital is dubious, at best: job creation may not compensate for the loss of that wetland, for example. This uncertainty compels strong SCD proponents to consider alternative sources of energy.

Strong SCD strives to enhance well-being by balancing the development of capital in all its forms: social, human, cultural, physical, economic, and natural (Roseland 2012). According to this approach, gross quantitative measures of growth, wealth, and consumption do not measure success, and solutions are rooted in social rather than technological change. Collective action, social innovation, and finite growth are key to strong SCD initiatives (Rees 1995).

For many practitioners, strong SCD proponents also aim for social justice, considering essential the redressing of inequalities in quality of life based on race, gender, and poverty (Agyeman and Evans 2004; Pearsall and Pierce 2010). This emphasis on social equality and solidarity determines the trade-offs that strong SCD practitioners are willing to make between social and environmental benefits.

Admittedly, much SCD falls at the weaker end of the spectrum in that practitioners emphasize efficiency in the use of resources as a means of conserving the environment; respect existing power structures; and aim for incremental changes to social, economic, and environmental relations. According to this approach, markets can be trusted to prompt people to behave more responsibly towards the environment. A good example is the recycling movement that began in the 1980s with the blue box program. Promoted under the motto of “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle,” this program was more about the technological fix of sorting recyclables than about issues related to overconsumption, with all of its social and political consequences (Connelly, Markey, and Roseland 2012).

Note that this analysis does not use the word weak in a derogatory manner. Many organizations engaged in SCD or the social economy do important work using practices that fall at the weak end of the spectrum. For example, technological advances and efficiencies in the use of resources may be important in our response to climate change and energy use. They could reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the short term. Unfortunately, big efficiency savings only occur once and subsequent savings diminish over time. To date, it is strong SCD that has allowed practitioners to most effectively bring together the ideas and alternative practices of environmental sustainability and social economics.

Weak-Strong Social Economy

Like SCD activities, social economy initiatives can be understood as arrayed along one or another type of spectrum: from weak to strong, from high road to low road (see Lewis and Swinney 2008), or from pragmatic to utopian (Fontan and Shragge 2000). Critics of weak social economy initiatives see such endeavours as working on the margins of the larger capitalist system: they help the poor while embracing the mainstream (Amin, Cameron, and Hudson 2002). They do not promote or facilitate societal transformation, and they pay scant attention to issues related to capitalist accumulation and environmental degradation. Most food banks are considered examples of weak social economy endeavours. Following a charity model, they play an essential role in providing food for the hungry, but they are often critiqued for depoliticizing hunger and poverty. While the public may get the impression that corporations (or individuals) “address poverty” by donating remnant stock to food banks, critics charge that the opposite is true. These donations solve problems of agribusiness waste, and donors are rewarded with tax credits (Poppendieck 1999). Meanwhile, the social causes of hunger remain untouched (McDonald 2005).

Rather than simply patch up problems, strong social economy initiatives contribute to transformative change. They undertake community-based actions that incorporate the principles of equity, redistribution, resilience, solidarity, and mutuality. They meet social needs instead of maximizing profit (Pearce 2003). Consider the alternative food movement, for example. Community supported agriculture, good food boxes, farmers markets, community gardens and local food hubs often use education, self-empowerment, and a systems approach to address the root cause of hunger and food insecurity. This approach addresses inequities and environmental degradation at each stage of the food chain, from field to fork to waste. If food initiatives do not highlight the relations between people and nature, the deep structural changes that are necessary for the emergence of sustainable communities, including changes in the ownership of agricultural lands, will not be realized (Allen 1993). In community-supported agriculture, for example, residents invest in farmers or in farmers’ market associations. Such schemes bring together diverse producers and consumers to share the risks and benefits of a resilient local food system.

If contribution to transformative change is one measure of a strong social economy initiative, local financing is another. Strong approaches generate a large proportion of their own capital, thus reducing their reliance on banks, government subsidies or on charitable donations. That is why so many non-profit societies, co-operatives, and mutual associations are turning to social enterprise. These ventures sell or provide goods and services that meet social and economic needs, returning the profits to the organization. Table 1.2 contrasts weak and strong approaches to social economics.

Table 1.2 Characteristics of weak and strong social economy


Weak social economy

Strong social economy

World view

Marginalized orientation

Neoliberal service provision*

Mainstream orientation

Roll-back neoliberalism

Role of economy

Corporate social responsibility

Charity, redistribution

Gap filling

Core business practice

Asset generating, equality

Social and economic transformation

Source of problem and solution





*This refers to the provision of government services. The neoliberal model emphasizes managerial efficiency instead of equity in the provision of services (Polèse 1999). This managerial focus is said to offer greater bottom-up participation and control. In fact, the real motivation is to reduce government funding. Weak social economy initiatives fill the gap left by this retrenchment. Strong social economy initiatives organize in opposition to it.

For social economy organizations at the weak end of the continuum, day-to-day commitments tend to absorb all of their time and effort, leaving no resources to take part in the politics of broader structural change. Their provision of food and shelter to marginalized communities is admirable, as is their contribution to incremental change. In the long run, however, strong social economy approaches do more to strengthen sustainability and resilience and to counter socio-economic inequality and environmental degradation. We encourage approaches that confront root causes and ideologies and that strive for alternatives and transformational or structural change. In our view, then, and that of other researchers, sustainable development recognizes not one imperative but three: it requires that we reconcile social, ecological, and economic values and goals (Dale 2001; Robinson and Tinker 1997).


It is at the local level where SE and SCD convergence is most apparent. It is the context specific interventions in particular places that provide opportunities to connect problems and solutions across communities. SCD and SE address realities at the local level, where people generally experience economic and social marginalization and environmental degradation most acutely (Bridger and Luloff 1999, 380). In the last two decades, climate change and energy issues have taken an especially large toll on Canada’s poor, including the working poor. Energy costs have spiked and energy supplies have grown uncertain. The portion of household income spent on cooling and heating, light, water, and waste removal has risen, resulting in “fuel poverty”—the inability to stay adequately warm or cool at a reasonable cost—for large numbers of citizens. At the same time, transportation costs have escalated, with a concomitant growth in the portion of the household budget spent on personal transport and on groceries and household goods.

Faced with the mounting impacts of these trends, individuals, communities, and municipalities are collaborating with social economy organizations. Social economy models of organization offer strong platforms for generating knowledge and innovation relevant to sustainability. Indeed, the theory and practice of both SCD and social economy offer us an entirely new ethos: they provide us with novel and valuable ways of thinking and organizing. Table 1.3 compares strong approaches to SCD with strong approaches to social economy.

Table 1.3 Characteristics of strong social economy, strong sustainable community development

Sustainable community development

Strong/Strong criteria

Social economy

Strong SCD initiatives focus on structural change. They emphasize development rather than growth, and they prioritize natural capital.

Challenging power addresses structural power, legitimacy, agenda setting, framing, etc.

Move toward structural change

Strong SE initiatives strive for structural change in order to address community needs. These efforts derive from a vision of a more human, co-operative, and just economy.

Humanized markets, socially directed enterprises and coalition building.

Strong SCD initiatives provide goods and services in ways that balance social, economic, and environmental goals. They aim for equity and justice, rejecting both the waterbed (some go up, some go down) and drawbridge (some safe inside the castle walls and others outside and in danger) politics of sustainability.

Engage in market-based activity

Strong SE initiatives engage in market-based provision of services and products, but they alter the criteria of exchange. They fashion new markets based on goals of affordability, social justice, and environmental sustainability. They relocalize the economy but are increasingly global in their perspective.

Strong SCD initiatives focus on building capacity for self-sufficiency and decentralization.

Focus on capacity building

Strong SE initiatives focus on building capacity for social and community-based ownership. Their activities build the collective assets of a community as well as co-operative models for scaling up.

Strong SCD initiatives focus on large-scale impacts. They address change at a range of nested scales: local, regional, national, and global. They recognize the need to partner with municipalities and regions to acquire needed resources.

Aim for scaling up and out

Strong SE initiatives focus on market activities that reduce dependence on the state. They are outward looking. They seek to develop networks, including strong municipal linkages, to scale up and scale out.

Strong SCD initiatives build broad coalitions and partnerships. They integrate small and family businesses with social economy organizations of various sizes.

Become part of network

Strong SE initiatives are values driven. They build broad coalitions, federations, and partnerships.

Strong SCD initiatives strive to change or subvert regulatory barriers. They are innovative. They seek new sources of capital for local green initiatives.

Challenge regulatory barriers

Strong SE initiatives create demand for innovative change. They then supply that demand as a way to get around obstructive power. They seek new forms of local capitalization and investment finance.

Strong SCD initiatives strive to ensure social justice, inclusion, and democratic governance. To measure success, they use socio-ecological indicators and new forms of accounting.

Strive for social inclusion

Social inclusion

The contributors to this volume are committed to research that advances the work of social economy and sustainability practitioners. We are enthusiastic about the potential of a convergence of these two fields, but our enthusiasm should not be misread as naïveté. We are well aware of the challenges of socio-economic transition and of the economic imperatives of capitalist accumulation that pressure firms (even well-meaning co-operatives, credit unions, and social enterprises) to reduce costs and generate surpluses in ways that often result in social exploitation and environmental decline (Meiksins Wood 2002). Although we are attentive to these pressures and tensions, we avoid what J. K. Gibson-Graham calls “capitalocentrism”—seeing capitalism as an all-pervading presence—since it leaves “little emotional space for alternatives” and can stifle one’s imagination for political change (2006, xxii).

Many writers have struggled recently with the tension between the building of alternatives and the pressure of capitalism on those organizations that attempt to do so (Alperovitz 2011; Bajo and Roelants 2011; Curl 2012; Lewis and Conaty 2012; Lutz 2002; Murray 2010; Smith and Seyfang 2013). Each of the pockets of resistance to that pressure which are highlighted in this book arises out of a desire by people in particular places to do things fairly and sustainably. These organizations, and the individuals who participate in them, take risks and extend the boundaries of what is possible. They frame problems and solutions in new ways. They offer hopeful narratives of alternative futures. They build networks, institutional supports, and movements, sometimes with the help of the state (especially at the municipal and regional levels). They explicitly incorporate concerns about social and ecological sustainability in their endeavours. More and more, they federate and seek to enter multistakeholder coalitions to regulate or alter structures of provision and market pressures. Their existence provides a promising counternarrative to the dominance of capitalist logic. They open up new spaces for others to creatively reframe how we relate to each other and to the environment in ways that reflect strong sustainability and strong social economy approaches.

The many social economy organizations introduced in this book are consistent with sustainability in terms of not only what they do but how they do it. They provide robust, tested models of alternative ownership and control—models that animate the values of democracy, participation, and co-operation. They promote values grounded in commitment to a moral economy, an economy based on goodness, fairness, and justice—values that motivate people to co-operate in changing and building their own communities (Cannan 2000; Lewis and Conaty 2012). Social economy organizations develop relationships based on reciprocal, democratic, and co-operative principles. They live out their commitment to global justice, which they believe is essential to a just transition to sustainability. Their plurality and diversity help us to imagine not only how to “take back the economy” (Cameron and Wright, 2014; Gibson-Graham, Cameron, and Healy 2013) but also how to organize regionally and globally to transform it democratically.


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2   The Green Social Economy in British Columbia and Alberta

Mike Gismondi, Lynda Ross, and Juanita Marois

It should be axiomatic that an enterprise which has social purpose will have a clear positive environmental policy, for to be environmentally irresponsible is to be socially irresponsible. (Pearce 2003, 43)

In this chapter, we describe, in broad brush strokes, what the BC-Alberta Social Economy Research Alliance (BALTA) mapping team has learned about social economics and green or environmental social economy organizations in Canada’s two westernmost provinces. Because the social economy is challenging to define, it is also challenging to measure. Its emergent and rapidly evolving qualities add to the complexity of designing an appropriate net to capture its scale and scope. In order to apprehend the richness and diversity of the social economy sector in our two provinces, the BALTA team used a mapping survey, described below, to gather data from a variety of social economy organizations.

One intriguing finding in the data gathered by the BALTA team provided the seeds for this volume: a large number of social economy organizations declared that they were serving an environmental purpose. As John Pearce suggests in the statement quoted above, segmented definitions of social economy groups blur in reality. The hard lines of social, economic, environmental, and cultural—tick boxes in our survey—did an injustice to the integrated way in which many of these organizations see themselves doing their work and delivering value to their communities. But before delving into the details of the BALTA survey and our findings, we provide some contextual history for the social economy in Alberta and British Columbia.


Alberta has led all provinces in Canada in growth over the last twenty years (Alberta 2011). The export boom in Alberta continues to attract workers and investment from around the globe, especially in the petrochemical and energy industries, and Alberta now has the fastest-growing population in Canada. As a major supplier of petroleum resources, Alberta has been eager to spread its economic philosophy of neoliberalism across the nation, a goal in part realized by the election of the federal Conservative Party and an Albertan prime minister in 2006. Looking to Alberta to promote a social economy movement like that in Québec (described in chapter 1) might therefore seem a fond but futile dream.

Despite rapid growth, quick profits, and high wages for some Albertans, however, poverty and inequity persist in the province. Alberta is not homogeneous, despite cultural tropes of cowboy hats and oil rigs. In their “Introduction” to Writing Off the Rural West (2001), Roger Epp and Dave Whitson describe two Albertas: one sociogeographic region and set of peoples inside the economic boom, and the other outside. They argue that wealth and power is concentrated along the Highway 2 corridor and the cities of Calgary and Edmonton, in resource cities like Fort McMurray and Grande Prairie, and in the recreational settlements along the southwestern Rocky Mountain corridor; meanwhile, people in eastern rural Alberta and parts of the north and south, as well as in the poorer neighbourhoods of the cities, are struggling in what Epp later describes as “outer Alberta” (2006, 729). A recent report published by the Parkland Institute on disparity in Alberta confirms those patterns. Diana Gibson (2012, 7) found that economic inequality is increasing, with “Alberta’s top 1 percent . . . by far the wealthiest in the nation, while at the bottom Alberta has the most intense poverty.” Her analyses of Alberta’s booming cities and industrial countryside help explain the need for the social economy in Canada’s richest province. Ecological conditions are also deteriorating, as expansion in the tar sands, shale gas, and conventional oil and gas industries continues, with especially negative effects on ecosystems and First Nations downstream from Fort McMurray, home to the world’s largest industrial ...

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