“This is a moment for social economy enterprises to demonstrate European values at a time when the EU is facing huge challenges,” said Ariane Rodert, a member of the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC), who opened the third European Day of Social Economy Enterprises (SEEs). The event, which took place on 4 June at the EESC's premises in Brussels, focused on how to scale up the social economy and showcased innovative social entrepreneurs.
The need to increase visibility
Today, the social economy provides paid employment to 6.3% of the working population, which amounts to 13.6 million paid jobs in the European Union. Social entrepreneurs and policymakers emphasised that it is time for the sector to scale up.
Christophe Itier, France's High Commissioner for the Social and Solidarity Economy and Social Innovation, stressed that scaling up, first of all, means increasing the visibility of the social economy in Europe because “it is often underestimated in terms of its potential for economic development and social transformation”.
Meanwhile, Nicolas Schmit, Luxembourg's Minister for Labour, Employment and the Social and Solidarity Economy, drew attention to the role that social economy enterprises could potentially play at international level, especially in regions with huge unemployment like the Balkans or in African countries. “We must remove barriers and support SEEs to develop their potential,” said Mr Schmit.
Ann Branch, acting director in charge of the Skills Directorate, DG EMPL, European Commission, pointed out that the Commission's work on the SEE started in 2011 with the Social Business Initiative, which triggered a range of activities including financial support. "It is such an important area in terms of inclusive jobs, growth and sustainable development; in my view, things have been evolving," said Ms Branch.
Four inspiring stories
The event was enriched with examples of innovative and successful SEEs, which have proved that scaling up is possible in the social economy.
Pfefferwerk Stiftung is an enterprise based in Berlin which strives to strengthen the community, diversity and social cohesion by running various educational, environmental and cultural projects and providing financial support for smaller scale initiatives. Last year, the foundation supported 71 socially minded projects that focused on youth employment, disadvantaged young people and advisory projects for women.
Impact Hub has eight branches located in various European cities, which operate around one hundred social economy enterprises in 50 different countries. The organisation aims to support impact entrepreneurs in the process of scaling up nationally and ideally internationally. The Impact Hub provides training for SEEs and, most importantly, connects them to local players and stakeholders in new places.
WIDE, a Luxembourg-based company, works for female empowerment through digitalisation. The enterprise not only runs a number of IT-related projects specifically designed for women, but also tries to work with other countries and organisations and raise awareness of gender bias and inequality in this sector.
Entrepreneurs solidaires du centre Isère was launched by eight local individuals in the French Alps region in 2012. This network aims to increase cooperation between different social entrepreneurs and so to create more innovative projects for employment and foster activities concerning social utility, economic performance, and respect for the environment. Today it brings together around 20 different enterprises.
Workshops to reflect on SEEs
These social economy success stories inspired further debate related to gender equality in SEEs, the role of clusters and possibilities for scaling up. These topics were raised in three participatory workshops.
- How to enhance the impact of the social economy and enable its scaling up?
The participants stressed that in order not to be excluded from markets, SEEs have to improve their competitiveness and productivity. They suggested that it is essential to have a flexible approach to financing the social economy, disseminate best practices and build inter-sectoral groups based on cooperation.
- Gender equality in SEEs' structures of governance
It was pointed out that 70% of all employees in SEEs are women, but that the statistics are reversed when it comes to the top jobs, which are predominantly held by men. The participants expressed several ideas on how to improve gender balance in SEEs at local, national and European levels. Among them, it was suggested avoiding gender/women commissions because it was felt that this leads to gender issues being left out of mainstream decision making.
- The role of clusters and regions in the scaling up
The participants concluded that clusters are about working together in a territory to connect different players, promote innovation and increase competitiveness. They emphasised that clusters can foster industrial modernisation and prevent fragmentation. However, it was stressed that clusters might face challenges in creating interregional partnerships.
Social economy cannot lose its soul
In the closing session, EU policymakers agreed that today is the right moment for the social economy to scale up. “It could be linked with the need to reach the sustainable development goals or boost the social economy’s resilience to economic hardships, but, most importantly, the social economy can successfully respond to growing nationalism,” said Sławomir Tokarski, Director of DG GROW, European Commission.
Tadej Slapnik, state secretary in the office of the prime minister of Slovenia, stressed that SEEs in Slovenia have notched up constant growth in terms of jobs and GDP. "We are seeing the potential of the social economy," said Mr Slapnik, adding that it is important to connect countries and academia in one stakeholders' platform.
Marie-Christine Vergiat, co-president of the European Parliament's Social Economy Intergroup, drew attention to risks that scaling up might pose. “The social economy should not lose its soul by scaling up”. Ms Vergiat said that the focus should remain on the foundation of the social economy, which is cooperation and solidarity.
Juan Antonio Pedreño, president of Social Economy Europe, emphasised that SEEs work on the basis of a commercial model that is different to that of traditional business companies and often does not distribute – but reinvests – profits to keep people in their jobs even at times of economic crisis. “It is very important to turn facts into reality; we need to ensure that this model of the social economy is the model of our future.”
Background: The EESC has been working on the topic of SEEs for the past decade, and a dedicated permanent study group was created in 2015. The European Day of Social Economy Enterprises aims to review the progress made in building an ecosystem for SEEs and to see what the next steps are for this enterprise model to be recognised and more widely disseminated.