The crisis has taught us that we are all on the same ship. People are now much more aware of what they’re consuming, how it is produced, the costs and impact of delocalisation and “competitive” large scale international trade. They perceive themselves more and more as citizens, not just as consumers, and understand their power in shifting from an unhealthy and unsustainable consumption, to a co-production where they have an active role and a relationship with who makes what they use. They are empowering themselves as they come to realize the possibilities of organizing the economy in a different way.
Fair trade, organic farming, renewable energy production, consumer groups / cooperatives, are growing – though slower than in the past. True, they are not exempt from the economic crisis and can be overwhelmed by it (especially if they mimic the competitive model), but they’re much more vibrant. And the main lesson learned is that by networking together and cooperating in a more holistic way, the crisis can become a real opportunity to have more people join in and take part of the re-creation of a different economy, which responds to the needs of individuals and communities, and not to the greed of profit makers and exclusive private interest.
In this sense, the ship can split in many smaller ships, which are bridged together and are able not just to survive the wreckage of the crisis, but surf and thrive by the active mutual initiative that solidarity economy represents.
SSE in the EU
Now here it becomes a bit tricky: in fact, we don’t have (yet) a clear measure of the diffusion of Social Solidarity Economy. Since it is not a sector of the economy, but a different way of doing economy, it cannot be measured through the official statistics and is therefore still for the most part “invisible”. In many countries, if we take as a basis the numbers related to the non-profit or third sector, we get an average of between 5 and 10% of the working population. Sweden, Belgium, France, Holland and Italy: between 9% and 11.5% of the working population is involved in some SSE enterprise.
Workers in SSE enterprises have increased in the last 10 years from 11 millions in 2002-2003 to 15 millions, or 6.5 % of the working population of the EU. This number does not include all the informal ways and the mixed forms of SSE practices and initiatives (from self-production, co- construction, to barter, social currencies, time banks, etc.). Community- supported Agriculture groups, Solidarity Consumer and Producer Groups are multiplying in many forms: from a few hundred in the end of the 1990s and only in two-three countries, to tens of thousands in 2014.
These numbers are still very sketchy and incomplete, and mix social economy (both traditional and innovative, from social business and green economy) with the more radical – and informal – solidarity economy. And they ignore the role of virtuous local public administrations, who promote different forms of social solidarity economic enterprises and initiatives.
Laws and policies in favor of SSE in Europe
In its fairly recent history, solidarity economy has been confronted with its institutional recognition, which in turn have more and more started to include its actors in their political radar. But while the social economy community, with all its families (associations, cooperatives, mutuals and foundations) has already gone far in being considered a part of the market economy (not without limits and contradictions, in trying to affirm its identity between State and Market – participating inside the institutional platforms, with its representatives)2, the solidarity economy mostly informal networks, having a very light and non structured and representative organisation, are less prone to being “trapped” in normative definitions and laws, through the debate is quite live and diverse in the different territories. That said, in the positive ambiguity that the Social Solidarity Economy keeps promoting, many institutions – especially at the local level, but some at the national level as well – are ready and have already started to include it in their policy making.
In the early 2000s, the actors of the social economy are grouped within the European Standing Conference of Cooperatives, mutuals, associations and foundations (now Social Economy Europe, since 2008) to defend their interests, and write in 2002 the European Charter of the social economy that promotes “a different way of undertaking”