By Emily Kawano, Lori Stern, Adoma Addo, and Kelley Dennings 1
Editors’ note: This article is from Nonprofit Quarterly Magazine’s summer 2023 issue, “Movement Economies: Making Our Vision a Collective Reality.”
The convergent crises we face today—the climate crisis, ecological destruction, a growing economic divide, increasingly virulent racist and anti-immigrant violence, a drift toward fascism—are driving a reckoning. In the United States, a 2021 Pew Research Center survey found that 66 percent of the respondents believe that we need a major or complete overhaul of our economic system. 2
This is reflected in the work of movement organizations—a growing number of which are making the journey to embrace systemic change that seeks to move us beyond capitalism and have embraced the solidarity economy as their North Star. The solidarity economy is a global movement that offers a framework to connect practices that are aligned with the values of solidarity, democracy, equity, sustainability, and pluralism (not a one-size-fits-all approach), all of which articulate a post-capitalist system that puts the welfare of people and planet front and center.
This article profiles three organizations from which we hail—the Center for Biological Diversity, Marbleseed (formerly the Midwest Organic Sustainable Education Service), and Wellspring Cooperative—that have grown to focus on addressing the many social, political, economic, and environmental ills that are a direct outcome of capitalism. These organizations had each approached their work either on a single-issue basis or had been working on reforms within a capitalist framework. Over time, however, these organizations have more explicitly come to see the limits of working to reform capitalism, whether piecemeal or as a system, and have moved toward a view that restructuring the entire economy (broadly defined) is core to their work. This is a big deal in the United States, where many movement groups have long shied away from explicit acknowledgement of the need to move beyond the capitalist framework to achieve their vision and objectives.
Our organizations are a microcosm of a shift that is occurring across hundreds of movement organizations nationwide. For example, the New Economy Coalition (a national network comprising over 200 member organizations, many of them leading national economic justice groups), which was once reluctant to fully embrace the solidarity economy as an overarching framework, now fully endorses it. 3
Below, we share each of our organizational stories.
The Center for Biological Diversity: Learning the Limits of Reform Strategies
The Center for Biological Diversity is a national nonprofit conservation organization that believes that the welfare of human beings is deeply linked to nature and to a vast diversity of wild animals and plants. The Center works with a combination of science, law, activism, and creative media to protect the lands, waters, and climate that people, wildlife, and all types of communities and ecosystems need to survive.
In 2022, the Center’s Population and Sustainability program looked at the environmental threats that are putting reproductive health and justice at risk.
The Center’s Population and Sustainability program works to decrease consumption of climate-intensive energy, food, and goods in the Global North. “The US has 5% of the world’s population but consumes 30% of the world’s resources and creates 30% of the world’s waste.” 4 It also emits 15 percent of the world’s carbon emissions. The average US resident has an environmental footprint that is 60 percent larger than that of most Europeans, 5 and nearly 700 percent larger than the average person in most African countries.
The Center’s conscious consumption work is guided by the reality that consumption—like the harms caused by production—isn’t equitable. Access to sustainable options and systems varies greatly. While many people need to consume less, some need to consume differently, and some folks—even in the United States—need to consume more.
Research led the Center to its current solidarity economy work. In 2019, we conducted an initial design-thinking ideation session with a diverse group of professionals, during which capitalism was identified as a major driver of consumption and endless growth. That same year, we conducted additional, separate, qualitative research in which we used focus groups to study zero waste, extended producer responsibility, conscious consumption, and the experiential economy. Capitalism hadn’t specifically been a core topic of the research, but it came up regularly in the conversations. For example, one participant mentioned that if capitalism worked the way it’s “supposed” to—by creating products needed by individuals and markets meeting that demand—it wouldn’t drive overconsumption; other participants noted that manufacturers market in a predatory way that leads to excessive consumption.
In 2022, the Center’s Population and Sustainability program looked at the environmental threats that are putting reproductive health and justice at risk. This includes toxic chemicals found in everyday products, used in pesticides, and released as pollution into the environment from energy extraction and industrial processes. It also includes climate-crisis-related threats such as more extreme droughts, fires, flooding, tornadoes, and related weather disasters. The study also examined the knock-on effects of those weather events, such as increased losses of crops and livestock and the impact of the growing climate crisis on emotional wellbeing.
From this research that Center staff conducted in both 2019 and 2022, a common underlying issue became clear: the US economy is built on capitalist values that prioritize wealth accumulation and concentration, endless growth, and private markets—regardless of the harm these cause to people and the planet. More fundamentally, Center staff came to appreciate that it was unlikely that simply pushing for reforms within the system would effectively address these harms. The burden of fixing bodily and environmental harm has fallen on individuals, but individual actions alone cannot solve these problems. Meanwhile, the corporations and governments that bear the lion’s share of responsibility for the climate crisis have not been held accountable.
While the Center had long recognized the role of capitalism in driving the climate and extinction crises, both these examples and other research made it clear that we needed to engage in post-capitalism work ourselves directly. If growth, an inherent feature of capitalism, continues to be held up as the primary measure of economic health, humans and nature will continue to be exploited to generate private profit at the expense of health, justice, and the future of our planet.
The logic of capitalism, Center staff have come to understand, drives poor environmental regulation, our culture of consumption, and the minimal social supports that perpetuate harm to human and nonhuman communities. Recognizing this, the Center is now working ardently to transition away from a capitalist system grounded in exploitation, endless growth, and unsustainable patterns of consumption, and to advocate for a solidarity economy that centers environmental, health, and social welfare.
To build on this, Center staff began to work on economic transformation with a review of alternative economies and post-capitalist frameworks to better understand the existing work being done by environmental and activist groups. The solidarity economy framework stood out with its commitment to sustainability, equity, social welfare, democracy, and pluralism.
Another aspect of this work is to engage with other groups working in larger social, economic, and political transformations, such as the US Solidarity Economy Network, which is working to raise awareness of the need to create new economic models.
The origin story of Marbleseed includes a group of farmers committed to the regeneration of earth’s resources and nonchemical farming.
This work also involves building coalitions with other environmental and social justice groups organizing around the question: What would supporting a just ecological transition toward a post-capitalist and post-consumerist future look like? Currently, the Center is gauging the knowledge and perspectives of the public at large through a nationwide survey about solidarity economy practices, which aspects of the solidarity economy framework appeal most to people, and in which solidarity economy behaviors people are most willing to engage. The idea behind the national survey is to generate clearer insights into the public’s desire for systemic change and guidance for groups ready to get involved. To identify which strategies will best enable us to fully implement the solidarity economy vision that the Center has developed across the organization, people are being polled specifically on solidarity economy practices, starting with areas that already have broad resonance among members.
Insights from the national survey will also provide the quantitative foundation of the post-capitalism website in development. The Center hopes to lead the way for other environmental, health, and activist groups to engage with systems transformation work—with the ultimate objective of disrupting the culture of overconsumption and supporting community-driven alternative economic solutions.
Marbleseed: Learning Why Organic Agriculture Requires System Change
The origin story of Marbleseed includes a group of farmers committed to the regeneration of earth’s resources and nonchemical farming. What we now know as the successful brand of the green-and-white USDA Organic label began as a movement that had coalesced to fight the chemical-industrial-agricultural complex that was taking hold in the United States. But these farmers were also fighting to preserve human-scale, diverse farms, where they could earn a living wage. When the Organic Foods Production Act became law in the 1990 Farm Bill, 6 farmers across the country could join a movement that had federal backing; in the subsequent decade, organic sales climbed from under $1 billion to $7.8 billion and grew even faster after federal regulations were promulgated in 2002. 7 Set against the backdrop of the loss of so many small farms that at the time accounted for almost half of food production in the United States, these first certified organic farmers saw a national label as a way to protect the planet and the rural communities where their small farm businesses were located.
Organizations like Marbleseed formed to educate farmers about these new standards and business models that took them directly to consumers who were willing to pay for higher-quality, local, fresh food. And there was a lot to learn. To farm organically is to think systemically. You feed the soil, which feeds the plants and animals and makes them more resistant to pests and disease.
Fast-forward 33 years, and that USDA Organic label has become a large market. According to the Organic Trade Association, “Organic is the fastest growing sector of the U.S. food industry.” 8 This has led to corporate interest in the label and a dilution of the standards farmers fought hard to create. And despite the presence of the organic label, the loss of small farms continues. “Small farms…accounted for just a quarter of food production in 2017” and “just 10 percent of” dairy specifically. 9
Lori Stern (a coauthor of this article) took the helm at Marbleseed amid the pandemic. At the time, the impact of a consolidated, industrial approach to agriculture was being vividly illustrated by the supply chain disruptions of the pandemic, which are still present, and the COVID outbreaks in large food-manufacturing facilities that resulted in the deaths of over 250 workers in meatpacking alone. 10 Farmers were dumping milk destined for institutional markets and euthanizing animals. Rural land prices in the Midwest were soaring due to low mortgage interest rates and folks leaving crowded cities, working from home, and feeling safer in socially distanced spaces. Land in the Midwest is getting snapped up by big agribusiness, as it seeks to move operations away from the climate change disruptions on the West Coast.
Furthermore, we were then—and continue to be—in the midst of a racial reckoning. Disparities in death rates from COVID, along with the murder of George Floyd, put inequities in our current systems in full view. Organic farmers on small, diverse operations already knew that the agricultural system was rigged. The time was past due for statements of solidarity, which, when they came, galvanized reflection on where we started as a movement and if we had lost our way.
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At the time, Marbleseed was the Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service, founded in 1995 to educate and empower farmers in an organic and sustainable system of agriculture. This education was still needed, but was the organization setting up beginning farmers and farmers transitioning to organic to fail? Was it acknowledging that farmers were engaged in farming and growing crops that are adaptations of Indigenous knowledge that has been evolving across the globe since the beginning of agriculture? Did Marbleseed feel connected to peasant movements and other small farms that continue to feed the world? Was Marbleseed truly still farmer led, and if so, by which farmers?
Marbleseed jumped into strategic planning in the fall of 2020, and by the spring of 2021 had reaffirmed core values in a meeting that brought together both the board of directors and staff. Farmer education was still important, but the group also wanted to go back to our roots as a movement of radicals that saw the injustices in the agricultural system. This meant a recommitment to stand in solidarity with, and make space for, Indigenous farmers and farmers of color who had been intentionally marginalized and dispossessed of their land.
The solidarity economy framework provided a language and touchpoints that had a strong history in communities of farmers. There were already thriving examples of cooperatives and collective efforts. Fair trade and value chains were other examples of how solidarity economy principles were already operating in our community. Organic farmers were centering their efforts on stewardship of the land and climate.
Organic systems thrive on diversity. As an organization, it was critical to prioritize farmer voices and concerns, ensuring that the group was truly inclusive. This meant being sure to put systems in place to create programs and educational offerings based on farmer input. Organic farmers understand that there are many right ways, and along with building healthy soils, there is a constant striving to improve practices and reciprocity on their farms and in their communities.
And this thinking contributed to the organization’s new name. Marbleseed was selected as a strong statement against the co-opting of the language of sustainability and regeneration, along with methods that define organic agricultural practice. The name Marbleseed refers to a plant native to the Midwest with a deep taproot and a role in restoration and regeneration of prairies. As Marbleseed, the organizational vision is to be of service to an ecosystem of farmers and allied organizations. Funding opportunities and program development are assessed against organizational values that are grounded in solidarity economy principles. This means actively working toward food and agricultural systemic change.
In 2022, in partnership with others—including the FairShare CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) Coalition and the Organic Farmers Association—Marbleseed soft-launched the online Ag Solidarity Network to operationalize this vision of farmer self-organizing. The platform enables self-identified groups to form but also to connect with others. Already folks are convening on the platform around production types (vegetables, grains, grazing, and dairy) as well as around crosscutting issues of wellness, land access, and anti-racism work. The Ag Solidarity Network makes space for education as needed but also for connection and movement building.
Bringing forward an alternative to the immensely powerful and consolidated corporate food system will take a movement that is much larger than the current organic community. It requires maintaining a spirit of abundance rather than scarcity, as the group moves along this path. As the organic food and farming landscape continues to evolve and grow, Marbleseed remains committed to the roots of the organic farming movement: care for the planet, nourishment for communities, and support for regenerative and organic farmers who are working in relationship with the ecosystems that sustain us.
Wellspring Cooperative: From Building Businesses to Building a Solidarity Economy
Wellspring Cooperative is based in Springfield, the third-largest city in the state of Massachusetts and a typical deindustrialized city struggling with high rates of poverty and unemployment. Wellspring was incorporated as a nonprofit in 2014 to build a network of mutually supportive worker-owned cooperative businesses in the underserved communities of Greater Springfield.
The Wellspring Cooperative Network currently has 10 member cooperatives, and there are more in the pipeline. The network provides a wide array of support for our members: co-op management training, conflict resolution, bridge loans, marketing and materials, customer acquisition, hiring, grant applications, connections to the broader co-op movement across the state, and facilitating peer-to-peer support between the co-ops.
We celebrate the abundance of co-ops in the upper Valley, but we understood that for co-ops to serve their mission they have to be relevant not just to relatively affluent, well-educated, and White communities but also to struggling, more diverse, working-class communities.
As a founder and current codirector of Wellspring, article coauthor Emily Kawano brought her own commitment to a solidarity economy framework. Her own personal motivation was not to develop co-ops for co-ops’ sake but rather because they are an important piece of the solidarity economy. However, Wellspring’s original mission was quite narrowly focused on worker co-op development.
The solidarity economy perspective and a core value of equity informed Wellspring’s choice to locate its work in the Greater Springfield area, in the lower Pioneer Valley. The Pioneer Valley comprises Franklin, Hampshire, and Hampden counties in western Massachusetts. There are more than 25 worker co-ops in the Pioneer Valley, making it one of the most worker-co-op–dense regions in the country on a per capita basis. At the time that Wellspring was founded, virtually all these co-ops were based in the upper Valley. The upper and lower Pioneer Valley are delineated by the Mount Holyoke Range, sometimes affectionately known as the “tofu curtain,” which is a reference to the progressive, alternative culture and lifestyles of the upper Valley, undoubtedly influenced by the presence of the Five Colleges (University of Massachusetts and Amherst, Smith, Mount Holyoke, and Hampshire Colleges). The lower Valley is where the large postindustrial cities such as Springfield and Holyoke are located, with typically high concentrations of immigrants, people of color, and low-income communities. We celebrate the abundance of co-ops in the upper Valley, but we understood that for co-ops to serve their mission they have to be relevant not just to relatively affluent, well-educated, and White communities but also to struggling, more diverse, working-class communities.
Wellspring initially built on an anchor institution model, which is a top-down approach that develops cooperative businesses to meet the procurement needs of anchor institutions, primarily hospitals and colleges that are anchored in place. Wellspring found that all the diverse actors that it brought together—community, labor, future worker-owners, support organizations, and anchor institutions—were open to the idea of co-ops and supported the idea of creating jobs where worker ownership, wealth building, and economic democracy are baked in. In response, Wellspring broadened its strategies of co-op development far beyond this anchor model. These days, Wellspring employs a bottom-up approach that supports people interested in starting up their own co-ops through both a 14-week Co-op Boot Camp and direct technical assistance. Wellspring’s conversion strategy provides support for conventional businesses to transition to a worker ownership model.
In addition to the importance of a job, people and communities knit their livelihoods together by helping each other out—organizing home or car repair, providing transportation, sharing various skills and knowledge, caring for children or the elderly, and so forth.
Today, the 10 co-ops in Wellspring’s network provide around 70 jobs, a modest number and indicative of the fact that co-op development, especially in struggling communities, is long, hard, and slow work.
Over time, Wellspring has moved from a singular focus on worker co-ops to embracing the solidarity economy. Wellspring joined the board of the US Solidarity Economy Network in 2018, engaged in spreading awareness of the role of co-ops in the solidarity economy, and became a founder of the Massachusetts Solidarity Economy Network and its sister organization, the Coalition for Worker Ownership and Power. In 2021, Wellspring broadened its mission to include “collective well-being,” which translates into supporting the growth of solidarity economy practices and the movement in Springfield and Holyoke.
This shift from a single-issue focus on worker co-ops to a broader mission to engage in solidarity economy work was driven by realities on the ground. Wellspring found that given its focus on working in communities that are on the forefront of struggle, there’s often a need to create a supportive ecosystem for the workers in the network beyond co-op business support. Many of the workers, along with their families, live on the edge of precarity and have needed help with housing, childcare, transportation, mental health issues, funeral expenses, and gifts or loans to get them through some emergency.
Wellspring realized that while a job is important, it is just one of the pieces necessary to move out of economic precarity and build economic security. Wellspring’s leadership began to think more broadly about livelihoods—how people, families, and communities provide for themselves. In addition to the importance of a job, people and communities knit their livelihoods together by helping each other out—organizing home or car repair, providing transportation, sharing various skills and knowledge, caring for children or the elderly, and so forth. This is especially true for low-income communities, where people cannot afford to buy everything that they need to get by. There are various ways in which these exchanges are mediated, ranging from gifting, reciprocity, barter, or monetary compensation.
In addition to supporting co-op business development, Wellspring realized that providing other on-ramps to cooperative strategies for supporting people’s livelihoods could serve two purposes: First, these kinds of cooperative initiatives can help to build a base of people who may be more interested in and prepared to either start up their own co-op or to become a co-op worker. Second, they offer far more ways for people to get involved in collective efforts to meet their own needs, such as community gardening, skill shares, time banking, and mutual aid. Wellspring is now also exploring the development of a community land trust, part of its broader mission to build local solidarity economy ecosystems—including affordable housing, regenerative agriculture, co-op businesses, community production, and space for community/culture building and education.
The Center for Biological Diversity, Marbleseed, and Wellspring Cooperative provide three examples, from the environmental, agricultural, and worker co-op sectors, of organizations that have shifted over the past few years from single-issue and/or reformist work within the context of capitalism, to embracing a post-capitalist framework of the solidarity economy. The process of grappling with theories of change and social/political/ economic analysis and strategies is necessarily ongoing.
As noted above, this is part of a broader trend, in which an increasing number of organizations are making this shift. The notion of a solidarity economy, once highly niche in the United States, continues to spread through different sectors, including housing, finance, and even philanthropy. 11
When the US Solidarity Economy Network was founded in 2007, 12 the term solidarity economy was basically unheard of in the United States. Over the past 16 years, the solidarity economy movement has succeeded in mainstreaming its recognition, at least within progressive circles. Given where solidarity economy activists started, it made sense to build this foundation organically—gradually building awareness, buy-in, engagement, and connections between various pieces, or imaginal cells, of the solidarity economy. 13
The solidarity economy movement is now at an inflection point where enough of a foundation has been laid to launch a more deliberate and strategic effort to scale out the solidarity economy. By this we mean that the emphasis is to forge stronger linkages among the existing and emergent imaginal cells of the solidarity economy, not simply try to grow each practice ever larger.
These stories of our three organizations give us cause to be optimistic that the time is now to develop a solid, well-resourced, comprehensive strategy to connect the atomized imaginal cells of the solidarity economy and give birth to a more just, democratic, and sustainable world.
- This article is a collective product, but different authors took lead responsibility for their own organizational sections. The lead author for the introduction, conclusion, and the case of Wellspring Cooperative is Emily Kawano. The lead authors for the section on the Center for Biological Diversity are Adoma Addo and Kelley Dennings. The lead author for the section on Marbleseed is Lori Stern.
- Richard Wike et al., “Citizens in Advanced Economies Want Significant Changes to Their Political Systems,” Pew Research Center, October 21, 2021, www.pewresearch.org/global/2021/10/21/citizens-in-advanced-economies-want-significant-changes-to-their-political-systems.
- To understand the shift in framing, compare the New Economy Coalition’s 2020 “Platform for the People” toolkit—which avoids the use of solidarity economic messaging (even if it supports solidarity economy practices)—with the organization’s current, more direct messaging. See also “Introducing NEC’s Policy Toolkit: Pathways to a People’s Economy,” New Economy Coalition, February 13, 2020, neweconomy.net/introducing-necs-policy-toolkit-pathways-to-a-peoples-economy/; and “What Is the Solidarity Economy?,” New Economy Coalition, accessed May 26, 2023, neweconomy.net/solidarity-economy.
- Annie Leonard, “Facts from The Story of Stuff,” The Story of Stuff Project, 2020, www.storyofstuff.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/01/StoryofStuff_FactSheet.pdf.
- “Data and Methodology,” Global Footprint Network, accessed May 26, 2023, www.footprintnetwork.org/resources/data/.
- “What is the Organic Foods Production Act?,” National Organic Coalition, accessed May 26, 2023, www.nationalorganiccoalition.org/ofpa-nosb.
- Hannah Broaddus, “The Explosive Growth of Natural & Organic,” Centra Foods,” April 3, 2017, www.centrafoods.com/blog/the-explosive-growth-of-natural-organic; see also Carolyn Dimitri and Catherine Greene, “Recent Growth Patterns in the U.S. Organic Foods Market,” Agricultural Information Bulletin 777 (Washington, DC: Economic Research Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture, September 2002).
- “Organic Hotspots,” Organic Trade Association, accessed May 26, 2023, www.ota.com/hotspots.
- Alana Semuels, “‘They’re Trying to Wipe Us Off the Map.’ Small American Farmers Are Nearing Extinction,” TIME, November 27, 2019, time.com/5736789/small-american-farmers-debt-crisis-extinction/.
- “Understanding the Economic Crisis Family Farms are Facing,” Farm Aid, September 14, 2020, www.farmaid.org/blog/fact-sheet/understanding-economic-crisis-family-farms-are-facing/.
- For example, Nwamaka Agbo, CEO of the Kataly Foundation, has advocated for the strongly related concept of restorative economics. See Nwamaka Agbo, “Restorative Economics for People and the Planet,” accessed May 27, 2023, www.nwamakaagbo.com. See also Nwamaka Agbo, “Restorative Economics: A Values-Based Roadmap to a Just Economy,” NPQ, November 3, 2021, nonprofitquarterly.org/restorative-economics-a-values-based-roadmap-to-a-just-economy.
- “About US Solidarity Economy Network,” U.S. Solidarity Economy Network, accessed May 26, 2023, ussen.org/about-ussen.
- Emily Kawano, “Imaginal Cells of the Solidarity Economy,” Nonprofit Quarterly Magazine 28, no. 2 (Summer 2021): 48–55