Innovative Food Networks: Italy’s Solidarity Purchase Groups

Innovative Food Networks: Italy's Solidarity Purchase GroupsBeyond Alternative Food Networks: Italy’s Solidarity Purchase Groups

As promised in my last post about Social innovators and entrepreneurs, in this post I would like to continue my look into innovation for social good with a review of anthropologist Cristina Grasseni’s new book ‘Beyond Alternative Food Networks’.

Grasseni’s book gives an account of the inner workings of Italy’s solidarity purchase groups. These groups are informal collections of families, working together to procure food and other products from mainly local producers in order to reclaim sovereignty over their purchasing.

The model is extremely innovative, both in terms of its social effect and financial implications. Groups make agreements with local farmers to buy their produce in return for guarantees regarding production processes (organic, tax paid, worker’s rights etc). The producer benefits because they can sell their produce directly to the consumer, and so is not held hostage by distributors and retailers. The consumer gains because they know who has produced their product, how, where and under which conditions. Group members can buy hygiene and baby products, detergents and a range of household goods through the network, offering a source of income to specialist socially and environmentally friendly producers.

Although this system might sound like a Utopian fringe, Grasseni points out that the groups spend about 80 million Euro a year (about $110 million) in effect moving this sum from the regular economy into this more direct exchange. The number of groups is in rapid expansion and has led to the creation of networks of groups, national conferences and organizations and even the creation of ‘districts of solidarity economies’.

The book argues that this alternative economics structure is trust based, with all parties within the transaction knowing and directly relating with the others. Several organizations work entirely within the structure providing goods only for the groups. The following examples of the dairy and the shoemaker really show the potential of the model.

In 2009 a local dairy farmer converted to organic production in order to supply these groups. This involved downsizing and specialization, but several years later the farm found itself in financial difficulty. Members of the groups ran an email campaign and in about a month raised 150 000 Euro (more than $200 000) to bail the dairy out. The money was passed on, the dairy survived and now produces milk and cheese for the very same groups that saved it. With the banks no longer involved, the farmer can sell the produce at retail prices directly to the groups and make enough money to live and repay the initial bailout loan.

The story of the shoemaker is similar. After being forced into downsizing the shoemaker was left with capability but little market. He withdrew from the mainstream economy and now provides made to measure shoes through the network. There is a traveling catalog, so once found you can choose a style and size and order your new shoes that then arrive through the post. They are also sold through a network of non profit organizations that have relationships with the groups.

This book certainly leads the reader into some out of the box thinking. The cover contains a quote from Peter Utting, Deputy Director of the united Nations Research Institute for Social Development. He states that “Grasseni provides fascinating insights into how alternative approaches to food provisioning can transform social and economic relationships in ways that bode well for contemporary global challenges of sustainability, social justice and rebuilding human relations built on trust”.

Beyond Alternative Food Networks by Cristina Grasseni is published by Bloomsbury and available through Amazon via the link above.

Author’s note: This is not a paid review, but I would like to point out to readers that I know the author and have a credit in the book.

image credit: bloomsbury.com

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Jonny HankinsJonny Hankins is the Foreign Correspondent for Bassetti Foundation for Responsible Innovation. He serves on the Editorial Board of the Journal of Responsible Innovation, participates in the Virtual Institute for Responsible Innovation, and is the Responsible Innovation Editor for Innovation Excellence. Trained as a sociologist at the Victoria University of Manchester UK, his interests range from innovation in the renewable energy sector, bio and medical ethics and the role of politics in innovation, to questions of ethical and moral responsibility. He lives in Boston, MA where he is also a musician, actor and street performer.

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