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Musings on the mainstreaming of solidarity economy, public procurement and cultural difference

Judith Hitchman, April 2009

This short article is based on a number of recent experiences and meetings with which I have been associated, mainly as interpreter, and is an attempt to further the understanding of readers as to some of the threats and opportunities inherent to the development of economic alternatives in the current global situation of multiple crises.

Fair Trade and buying local: a complementary approach?

A recent seminar organised by Max Havelaar for the Fair Trade Towns programme provided much food for thought. This programme which has European Union funding, uses the following definition:

« A Fairtrade Town is a town, city, village, county, zone, island or borough that has made a commitment to supporting Fairtrade and using products with the FAIRTRADE Mark. Any area can work towards Fairtrade status and everyone needs to be involved!

Community organisations, faith groups, businesses, schools and individuals all contribute to making their area a Fairtrade Town by pledging to do what they can to support Fairtrade and promote the FAIRTRADE Mark. »

Fair trade, along with local organic food and the short supply chain or direct producer-to-consumer production of food or goods, (particularly Local Solidarity Partnerships between Producers and Consumers: LSPPC) is a very strongly emerging trend today. While the first is based on the specific criteria of Fair Trade (cf Max Havelaar, WFTO – formerly IFAT – sites), the latter is based on principles of responsible consumption at local level. Both cut out the concept of middlemen, and ensure a decent living for the producers. This in itself means that while the producer is paid far more than if the goods are bought by supermarkets (who try to keep the prices paid to growers/producers to a minimum, and their own profit margins to a maximum), that the short chain means that prices that consumers pay are generally much the same as those of the ‘mainstream market economy’. The quality of food and goods is always very high.

The other key aspect is the respect of International Labor Organisation (ILO) conventions, which guarantee decent work conditions for all producers. And when people can earn a decent living, the question of being forced to take the perilous path of emigration is often solved. This is all the more true when the issue of food sovereignty is also placed at the heart of governmental policy as is the case in certain countries like Mali. If we take all these aspects into account when we buy our fruit and vegetables for the week, it then becomes a reasonable choice to offset a bunch of fair Trade bananas (food miles, but Fair Trade) with a bag of locally grown organic apples (our own local farmers can survive)… ! And these are all aspects that ensure that a genuine local economy, a real economic alternative to the crisis situation can emerge, be it here in Europe or further afield.

Public Procurement policies: what role can the solidarity economy play?

Public authorities in Europe also have the ability to purchase goods on the best cost/price basis, or to include specific social or socio-political clauses. For small items, there is no need to go to tender. For larger amounts, where tenders are compulsory, the specifications may include such clauses as including disadvantaged workers and/or environmental clauses. Italy was the first country to have introduced the social dimension in public procurement in 1991, by reserving certain public markets for social co-operatives. This law had to be re-examined following objections by the European Commission. For the legal discussion on public procurement has now taken on a European dimension. In effect, the inclusion of social criteria in public tenders is still not mainstream practice.

While it is now quite a widespread and generally accepted approach in France to have organic food in school canteens (and so much the better!), the introduction of other products is more recent. An interesting example of just how far public procurement can be taken is the town of Nantes, where specific clauses in public tenders for uniforms for various Municipal services are based on the use of Fair Trade textile (organic cotton in particular). The difficulty here is essentially one of demand exceeding supply; this initiative will hopefully in time induce a whole market turn-around, with supply meeting the public demand for the product. Another key area is that of recycled paper.

Two cultural variables struck me rather forcefully, both during this meeting. The first is that whereas procurement in France tends to be top-down, based on a traditional hierarchical approach. This is a support-mechanism whereby regions, counties and cities are twinned at institutional level with those of the French ex-colonies of the South in the “Priority Solidarity Zone” of « decentralised co-operation », providing financial support for local development projects in many of these countries (often ex-colonies). Various associations, some of which are faith-based also support solidarity projects in the South. The approach in the United Kingdom is quite different. It is civil society and community-led, and frequently has to exert considerable pressure on Local Authorities to buy into projects. The Anglo-Saxon approach also generally includes faith-based NGOs. The role of civil society NGOs provides a bottom up impetus to economic alternatives.

The challenges of mainstreaming the sale of solidarity economy goods and services

Another aspect is the concept of risk-taking and procurement of alternative economy goods and services, even within the solidarity economy movement itself. Fair Trade and organic food are clearly identified products, irrespective of whether or not they are officially certified (this is another issue which is deliberately not addressed in this article). Certain other products and services are now accepted by consumers, be they private individuals or companies. Linux versus Microsoft is a good illustration. Someone buying a Linux system knows that they are not taking an inordinate risk. Yet there remains a general resistance when organising one-off alterglobalisation events, to working with alternative interpreting networks or systems, which are all too often perceived as unreliable, even where the contrary has been proven. This was sadly the case in the decisions taken at the World Social Forum in Belem, which resulted in limited events being covered by interpretation and a failure to enable participants to speak in the language of their own choice.

Is the underlying cause behind these decisions the fear of those in the purchasing seat that « their » event, inevitably a once-in-a-lifetime moment, might not be a success? Yet if people’s ability to take this sort of risk does not increase, how can genuine change occur? Posner and Schmidt in 1984 conducted a well-recognised survey on ethical behaviour and choice by managers. The results point very clearly to the importance of exemplarity, with the example of the behaviour of ones’ superiors being the single most important factor that determines behavioural choice. This means, by extrapolation, that the role played by local authorities in their choice of procurement has a huge potential knock-on effect and impact in terms of setting a positive example. First results of the Fair Trade Towns programme and the awareness it has raised, clearly bear this out. The same could certainly be said for purchasing of alternative goods and services if a little more effort were to be made in procurement.

In conclusion

The challenge facing social and solidarity economy are considerable if it is to occupy a greater place and continue to grow and build a fairer more solidarity-based economy. Only a holistic approach will lead to long-term solutions to the current multiple crises at local and international level, where products become linked to ILO labour standards, with ethical clauses, fair prices, food sovereignty, and lasting relationships. This implies both openness and a collective willingness to change, to take risks and explore alternatives.

Sources :

The article is available on the blog: International Newsletter on Sustainable Local Development