In alternative green niches, people's motivations for action are based upon different values from the mainstream. This represents the bottom-up generation of alternative systems of provision, vertical commodity chains (comprising production, marketing, distribution, retail and consumption in social and cultural context) which mediate between and link 'a particular pattern of production with a particular pattern of consumption' (Fine and Leopold, 1993: 4). For example, Time Banks are community-building projects where participants give and receive services in exchange for time credits. Everyone's time is valued equally, and taken-for-granted (but sometimes scarce) skills and abilities, such as time for listening sympathetically, companionship, doing someone's shopping, walking a dog, light gardening or home repairs, are recognised, valued and rewarded. The values expressed through this time-based system of exchange contrast with the conventional economy; they value all productive labour equally (Boyle, 2005). So while participants enjoy the social networking, sense of being useful, and opportunity to help others, they are also imbued with alternative values relating to the nature of work, how people are valued as assets; they respond to incentives to perform the types of neighbourhood work needed to build healthy communities. The alternative metrics expressed in this Time Banks niche are expanding as a network of small-scale projects that demonstrate how measuring 'wealth' and 'sustainability' is a matter of perspective. Indeed, the UK government's sustainable development strategy calls for new research to define 'wellbeing' in place of economic growth (HM Government, 2005).
In such cases, grassroots activists seek to mobilise communities to create new 'systems of provision'. These grassroots innovations offer the potential to generate transformations in production-consumption systems in a way that individuals cannot (Maniates, 2002). By joining small, everyday decisions about food, say, for whatever reason (taste, health concerns, food miles, supporting local growers), communities of citizens participate in that (radical) creative process (Dobson, 2003). As such, they represent collective efforts to transform not simply the market choices available, but sometimes the entire market system itself. They help overcome the principal problem with an individualised approach to greening the market, namely that acting individually, consumers are powerless to change the rules of the game, they are stuck within current socio-technological regimes (Seyfang, 2005, 2006a,c). Grassroots innovations can have ambitions beyond the micro level. Some seek new institutions based upon different values from the incumbent regime, and hence contribute critically towards change at the regime level too.
Perceived as niche initiatives in an alternative kind of sustainable development (cf. mainstream business reforms), grassroots innovations might also hold some comparative power. By looking at the kind of practical sustainability expressed in these niche initiatives, more mainstream green reformers, and their critics, might obtain a different perspective upon mainstream efforts. Somewhat analogous to travelling through another country and culture, the experience causes us to reflect upon our home culture. The niche model might prove effective precisely because it draws contrasts. It could serve as a dialogical device for reflecting critically upon mainstream reforms. Stark contrasts between niche and mainstream, whilst making the translation of lessons from niche to mainstream difficult (see below), can still provide a basis for critical reflection.
In niche terms, grassroots initiatives exhibit first- and second-order learning. They build environmental support and capacity. Practices develop that provide services with reduced environmental impact whilst, at the same time, encouraging participants to further reflect upon how their need for services is framed and developed in other areas. Church and Elster (2002) identify a wide set of indirect environmental and social impacts from grassroots innovations, for example environmental awareness-raising, education and promotion, changing the attitudes of local policymakers, engaging people in sustainability issues in their daily lives, and developing new ways of working towards sustainable development. As a result of niche practices, which are often participative, individuals and communities can benefit in terms of greater empowerment and confidence, skills and capacity for further community-based action.
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