Italian SSE and Fair Trade - Public Lectures by WFTO Europe President

Date of Publication: 
June 2017
Publication Type: 
Article/Policy paper

Giorgio Dal Fiume, president of World Fair Trade Organization Europe, presented the case of Italian SSE ecosystem through a series of public lectures in Seoul (17th and 18th of May) on the ‘Implications of Italian Social Solidarity Economy Ecosystem and Fair Trade.’ Giorgio Dal Fiume is the president of WFTO Europe as well as is in charge of training at the CTM Altromercato, which is the biggest Fair Trade organization in Italy. GSEF takes advantage of his visit by presenting some of the interesting ideas from the lectures and interviews with the GSEF team and introducing to the readers about Fair Trade and Italian social economy, which is often praised by the public as ‘the third Italy’ or ‘Emilia-Romagna model’ whereby cooperatives create one third of total GDP.

Starting with a conceptual framework for the SSE and Fair Trade, there can be a difference between SSE and cooperative/Fair Trade if Fair Trade organisations and cooperatives lack social values and purposes. Hence, Fair Trade and cooperatives do not necessarily belong to the SSE. Broadly in Italy, social cooperatives, P.S.G, consumer cooperatives, and social, agricultural cooperatives constitute the social solidarity economy, and it requires an inter-linked understanding of solidarity between theses form of organisations.

Firstly, P.S.G comprises a small number of consumers and producers based on a certain region to vitalise regional food ecosystems. In the P.S.G system, consumers purchase local products directly from producers on a regular basis and through the shared responsibility between consumers, small size producers can maintain stable productions and distributions. In the case of consumer cooperatives, the cooperative act as a means to create a discussion table to remove middlemen thereby reduce the price of products. Lastly, social, agricultural cooperatives pursue guaranteeing fair wages for poor farmers. This form of cooperatives plays a special role, especially for workers who are exploited under the influence of the mafia, notably immigrant farmers. 

Traditionally, to a certain extent, Fair Trade was often undermined in domestic markets as it may destabilise local production activities by importing goods produced by developing countries. Also, Fair Trade was criticized in terms of environmental impacts as exporting-importing goods, inevitably generate ‘eco-mileages’. In order to resolve the problems, Fair Trade organizations persuade the public that Fair Trade goods will strictly keep up with the environmental standards of UN FAO and other international organisations while also ensuring benefits for not only producers in the global south, but also for the local producers in the north. Through continuous persuasions, gradually the relationship between Fair Trade organisations and local producers has recovered, thereby they mutually agreed that Fair Trade is no longer the problem of ‘borders’ but the problem of ‘standards’. 

Discovering the new goal by re-defining the problem as the issue of ‘standards’ was a paradigm shift. This shift enabled Fair Trade organisations to extend their regional focus not only limited on the global south but also local problems of the global north. For example, in the case of Italy, extending the coverage of Fair Trade activities throughout Italy itself allowed focus on the issue of refugees and immigrants in Italy. For instance, every year, millions of Syrian refugees in Italy who live in poor surroundings and often regarded as terrorists, but they now able to work with Fair Trade organizations that and often established by immigrants. This change enabled citizens of Italy to help out refugees and immigrants in Italy without physical travel. This change redefined the area of Fair Trade activities; impacting both the global south and the global north. Borders are no longer valid in this context, but the standards and values of Fair Trade can be universally applied. This important shift suggests a long-term complimentary economic model that can play its role in alternative systems.

The core values of these cases, suggest a new direction to the SSE organisation and extend the very concepts of SSE. Importantly, the changes brought by the Fair Trade and SSE brought these concepts closer to the lives of the citizens.

Also, the paradigm shift allows us to consider the SSE and Fair Trade more in tandem with the current events and social issues in Europe. In the context of the European-wide economic recession, the emergence of nationalism in relation to the problem of refugees/immigrants is drastically changing consumer trends. In the case of Emilia-Romagna, once renowned for the Emilia-Romagna model, this Italian region once experienced substantial SSE growth in the 80s and 90s. Now, according to Giorgio, due to the economic recession, situations have turned the tide. As many SSE organisations are now in severe competition with MNCs across the borders while supports and attention from citizens and public authorities are declining. In addition to this, some Italian cooperatives are losing interest in social and ethical concerns. Even in Emilia-Romania region, social cooperatives are undergoing hard times like any other regions in Italy due to the economic crisis that hit Italy and led to the consequent decline of investments and attention by public authorities.

Although SSE organizations are experiencing difficulties overall, Fair Trade is in a somewhat different situation. Fair Trade organisations are relatively stable since they are benefiting from deals with supermarket chains. These deals are going up by 15-17% annually as supermarket chains recognise and readily exploit the values of Fair Trade goods that can bring to customers. Also, there are interesting initiatives happening at the municipal level, notably by the City of Bologna’s financial support for Fair Trade organisations, which roughly estimate to 200,000 euros annually. This financial support is maintained even under budgetary constraints. In Germany, Minister of Economic Development supported municipalities by providing wages for 1~2 staffs in each municipality to support Fair Trade projects. Also at the EU level, Belgium and Netherlands sought to actively promote Fair Trade in Southern European nations through financial means.

To varying degrees, in Emilia-Romagna, the landscape for Fair Trade and the SSE are changing. Many cooperatives are no longer involved in creating social values, and support from public authorities and citizens are declining. For Fair Trade, the situation may be slightly better, but it is also pushed to engage in both global and local issues. However, there are still positive sides as we see the local level initiatives and redefined solidarity between/within countries as well as EU level. The Italian case suggests that we need to keep redefining the very concept of SSE that can accommodate and induce more support from public and citizens (especially in the young generation) while keeping its core values, most notably the emphasis on ‘community’ and ‘local’.

Written by GSEF project team based on interviews conducted and public lectures (17,19 May Seoul)