AlterEcos, Questioned

By Sarah Plauborg, cand.comm., Roskilde University

The stated ambition of the AlterEcos project is to explore alternatives to currently dominant forms of economic organizing. Due to the financial crisis, it was urgent to imagine possibilities for change within the present economic order. However, since then yet another global crisis has emerged; the climate. What seems most urgent now is imagining alternative organizational practices that work towards more sustainable modes of production and less unequal distribution of resources. In other words; organizations that realize social and environmental responsibility.


Capitalism vs. Climate Crisis

Alternative organization theory is based on the assumption that the climate crisis is a result of capitalism. Capitalism has arguably increased the living standards and sparked growth in many parts of the world. However, this has come at a cost that now seems to surmount the benefits. The climate crisis is the result of human activities, the most detrimental of which relate directly to the capital-driven economy. In this sense, it is reasonable to suggest that capitalist means cannot be used to achieve sustainable ends – or, as Audre Lorde had it, that the tools of capitalism cannot be used to solve capitalism’s problems. This attitude, however, rests on the assumption that profit and sustainability are irreconcilable.


More specifically, alternative organization theory proposes that organizations must adhere to the principles of autonomy, solidarity and responsibility and, further, that means and ends are indistinguishable. While it is acknowledged that the perfect alternative organization does not exist, it is maintained that each of the principles must be realized to some degree. In this sense, organizations must act in accordance with the ‘future society’ they envision; meaning, they must be prefigurative, as this concept is defined by Marianne Maeckelbergh (2014).


Is entomophagy an inherently alternative practice?

The climate crisis has led to a search for alternative food sources in order to feed the growing world population without completely draining the world’s resources. The practice of consuming insects, or entomophagy, has been promoted by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations as a way to meet the demands for increased food production and environmental preservation because producing insects for food and feed emits a significantly lower amount of greenhouse gases compared to most livestock. Moreover, rearing insects requires less land and water and as they are very rich in fat and protein, they are considered to be of high nutritional value. In essence, insects have been deemed the “future protein” which will have a positive effect not only on the environment but also on the global distribution of resources.

The Danish organization ENORM is innovative in the sense that it is one of the first organizations to produce insect-based food and feed in Denmark. Insects constitute a radical alternative to the food products that are established in Western societies today and producing/consuming them exhibits a clear implementation of the third principle of alternative organization; responsibility to the future.


In my master’s thesis, Alternative Product, Alternative Organization?, I studied how ENORM constitutes itself communicatively in relation to the principles of alternative organization. The thesis shows that the founders of the organization have established an idealistic relationship to insects as a food product, considering it to be a future source of protein, the turn to which will save the planet. ENORM also practices responsibility by educating consumers about the benefits of entomophagy and insects as an alternative source of protein. The organization has acknowledged the cultural barrier towards entomophagy in Denmark which inhibits the immediate spread of this practice. This has led to the establishment of a B2B company, ENORM Biofactory; an insect farm which will rear black soldier fly larvae as raw material for the feed and food industry. In this sense, the organization has established a strong relation to the principle of responsibility, which is radically present within ENORM’s vision and mission.

Interestingly, ENORM does not organize in relation to the principles of autonomy and solidarity. In a true ‘survival of the fittest’-manner, ENORM mimics its surroundings by applying traditional forms of profit-driven organizing. However, ENORM does distinguish itself from dominant forms of organizing which do not consider sustainability to be profitable. Organizing in a traditional manner is a deliberate decision made by the founders and it is alternative because it is based on the principle of responsibility. In other words, ENORM does not align its means and ends; instead, the profit-driven structure is chosen as a means to effectively achieve sustainable ends. Profit is essentially juxtaposed with sustainability and, in this way, ENORM challenges the normative assumptions of alternative organization theory.


Questioning Alternative Organization theory

This empirical example poses questions as to the necessity of adhering to all three principles of alternative organization as necessary means of achieving sustainable ends. ENORM demonstrates that it is possible to realize societal and environmental responsibility without applying the organization-centric principles of autonomy and solidarity. Moreover, in contemporary times, what is more urgent; democratic economic practices or global sustainable development? Given the emergence of UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, it seems that a global consensus has already been reached, regarding the types of futures we need to imagine.

Perhaps, then, if alternative organization theory wishes to remain relevant, it will benefit from a more nuanced perception which does not attempt to establish blueprints of alternative organizations but is more attentive to the rationales that determine organizations’ means and ends. In this way, organizations, like ENORM, would be acknowledged as alternatives to the current dominant forms of organizing; alternatives that do not abandon capitalist means, but put them to better use.

Alternative organization theory emerged out of the economic crisis as a tool to imagine other possible ways of organizing economically. In this sense, the counterpoint to alternative organizations was considered capitalism because this was the dominant form of organizing. However, as this article points out, the world faces a new crisis. Today, organizations that do not value sustainability or practice the principle of responsibility are the dominant and destructive forms of organizing for which alternatives are most urgently needed. This is not to say that capitalist practices are not to blame for the destruction of the environment. Arguably, capitalism has “colonized” the world with a capitalocentric logic and has made both consumers and organizations blind to ongoing detrimental global effects through an uncritical race for profit and consumption. Alternative organization theory is effective in the sense that it aims at questioning dominant forms of organizing; it is essentially an effort at opening our eyes to these unsustainable organizational practices. In other words, if capitalism has “colonized the mind”, then alternative organization theory is an attempt to “decolonize it”.

This decolonization process is essentially a pursuit of a non-capitalocentric future, but it is relevant to point out that this does not mean that capitalist forms of organizing should be condemned. As Gibson-Graham (2006) suggests, a non-capitalocentric world should encompass a heterogenic organizational landscape in which capitalist and non-capitalist forms of organizing coexist. In this sense, the organizational form is not essential; what remains relevant, however, is the concept of prefiguration. In the case of ENORM, insects are a symbol as well as a means to a better world.


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