June 7, 2010- Building the triple bottom line

Building the triple bottom line

People-centred economy values people and planet as highly as profit.

by Penney Kome

For the complete article, click here. 

Market meltdowns, massive fraud, catastrophic oil spills, collapsing industries and mounting unemployment — isn't there any sector of the economy that offers stability and sustainability? Participants at the National Summit on a People-Centred Economy, held at Carleton University May 30-June 1, answered that question with a qualified "yes".

One third of Canadians and Americans already hold membership in a sector that employs about ten percent of non-government workers. And Summit participants believe that this sector offers the best hope for sustaining our future. There are many different names and kinds of organizations in this sector: co-operatives, non-profits, social enterprises. What they have in common is concern for the social and ecological impact of their work.

"This is a pivotal moment in history," said NDP MP Tony Martin (Sault Ste-Marie), a longtime supporter of co-operatives. Another speaker had already said something similar: "In this particular economic moment, there is a golden opportunity for social enterprises to play a greater role in our economy," said John Anderson, who is Director, Government Affairs&Public Policy, for the Canadian Co-operative Association.

Non-profits, co-operatives and social enterprises constitute Canada's third-largest economic sector, behind private enterprise and government work.

Organized by the Canadian Community Economic Development Network (CCEDNet), the Summit brought together 300 participants from across Canada and around the world. Speakers included federal Agriculture Minister Jean-Pierre Blackburn — who helped persuade the UN to name 2012 the International Year of Co-operatives — and Gary Goodyear, Minister of Science and Technology, who announced a new $1 million, five year research grant to study co-ops. "This research project will look at the economic, social and environmental benefits that co-operatives contribute to Canadian society," said Goodyear.

Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff gave a passionate 15-minute speech about his party's commitment to a caring society. "You are the people who put the heart and soul into the Canadian economy and the role of a government is to help you," he said. "Government is there to make sure the economy serves people and not the other way around."

Bloc Quebecois leader Gilles Duceppe was not listed on the programm but appeared to speak briefly about the strength of Quebec's social economy, and the support its provincial government provides. In fact, so many politicians suddenly wanted to present to the assembly that it seemed either CCEDNet's star is rising politically or else (as some conference-goers wondered out loud) Canada might be headed for a federal election.

Also present were major players in the sector, such as Ian MacPherson, who has published 17 books about the social economy and who heads up the Canadian Social Economy Hub; and Ken Delaney and Michael Peck from the United Steelworkers of America, who spoke about the USWA's new partnership with Spain's huge Mondragon co-operative movement.

Among the people sitting around tables in the audience were academics, federal and municipal workers and representatives of organizations such as the Canadian Co-operative Association, the Canadian Centre for Community Renewal, the Canadian Social Economy Hub, the Women's Economic Council, the Canadian Environment Network, and the Canadian Worker Co-operative Federation.

Many participants felt that the time is right to offer the public a change from the purely profit-driven economic model. As keynote speaker Raj Patel put it, "Climate change is the biggest market failure in history... If we are to have a sustainable economy and a planet that children can grow up on, we need to make radical changes."

Depending how many other people think the same way, the public just might be ready to hear about the "triple bottom line" — a way of doing business that values people and the planet, in addition to net revenue.

"We've lost sixteen million jobs during the Great Recession in the US," said Michael Peck, Mondragon's representative in the USA, "and only half of those jobs are ever coming back... Ontario has lost 115,500 manufacturing jobs since January 2008, and a total of 326,700 manufacturing jobs since manufacturing employment reached its nadir almost a decade ago."

In contrast, he said, the co-op sector has been stable and growing. "One out of every three people in US and Canada belongs to a co-op, and co-op employees represent ten percent of the private [ie, not government] sector workforce," said Peck. "In the US alone, there are 29,000 cooperatives with almost 100 million members, and over $30 billion in assets... Today, more than 10,000 credit unions with over $480 billion in assets serve more than 79 million people in the United States."

Canadian figures are also larger than might be expected. Canada's non-profit sector currently represents $120 billion a year in spending — comparable to Canada's retail, mining or oil and gas sectors. In fact, non-profits, co-operatives (including credit unions) and social enterprises (businesses where the income supports a charitable or non-profit arm) constitute Canada's third-largest economic sector, behind private enterprise and government work.

"More than one million people work in the co-op and non-profit sector in Canada," said Nancy Neatnam of the Chantier de l'economie sociale, "but they define themselves as volunteers." Quebec's government provides very generous funding for the Chantier social economy network, and the research it publishes.

Now, with repeated economic crises widening the gap between rich and poor, she said, "the social and solidarity economy emerges as a strategy for job creation and for the creation and sharing of wealth. In Latin America, in some European, African and Asian countries, the social and solidarity economy is a stakeholder in development strategies." This economy brings to the table "citizen based-action, rooted in communities, with environmental concerns."

Third-sector groups are especially important in rural and economically underdeveloped areas, where providing essential services may not be profitable for large scale corporations, or where local people want to keep control of the services, such as grain silos and grocery and hardware stores. Rural areas are also particularly vulnerable to economic downturns, because the closing of even a mid-sized business can have a serious impact.

The USWA's Ken Delaney reminded the audience that "US President Obama called for 'virtuous cycle' job creation strategies," in contrast to the vicious circle of jurisdictions trying to outbid one another for environmentally destructive operations that use up all available resources and squeeze out all the profit before moving on, leaving the jurisdiction to try to lure another company to provide any kind of jobs, even precarious, poorly paid jobs.

Rustbelt cities such as Cleveland and Pittsburgh have had success with social economy start-ups. Delaney quoted USWA president Leo Gerard, who said that, "Historically people have looked at co-ops as a way to meet their needs when those in power would not."

Yet co-ops and non-profits face barriers that private sector businesses don't. Credit unions have geographical and other restrictions on loans, for example. Almost no banks want to provide a non-profit (much less a charity) with a line of credit, for fear of bad publicity should they have to take legal action.

Also, there are barriers of language and regulation between and among non-profits themselves. Participants talked about "food sovereignty", "labour sovereignty", "social economy", "collectivity" and "economic democracy", and sometimes the meaning seemed to change with the speaker. In fact, one of the purposes of the meeting was to work towards clear definition of some of these terms.

On Monday afternoon, conference participants sorted themselves into six workshops to work on recommendations — including "stronger collaborative systems, the scaling up of effective financing and governance systems, and co-construction of public policy that supports the movement."

From the podium, John Anderson urged them on, saying, "All we want is a level playing field. Give us the same advantages given to private enterprise — and watch us go!"