Ecosocial Innovation: Lessons for Labour Market Policies

This blog is based on an article in the Journal of International and Comparative Social Policy.  Click here to access the article.

The covid-19 crisis is causing a drastic rise of unemployment rates around Europe. Instead of using just old recipes the crisis could also be the starting point for an ecosocial transition in labour market policies. In the past, sustainability of labour market and unemployment policies was discussed one-dimensionally: understood as financial or economic sustainability to keep public spending as low as possible. Environmental sustainability was not an issue. In our recent study we tried to tackle this problem from an environmental social work and social policy research perspective. The results revealed much potential on different levels.

Instead of looking top-down from policy to practice, we focused on small-scale organizations. These community based actors we called ecosocial innovations. One trait of these organizations, cooperatives or associations is that they all provide training or employment for formerly unemployed people. Their fields of social and economic activity encompassed bike culture, organic agriculture, recycling, and education for sustainability. They combined social and environmental goals in their activities and supported unemployed people at the same time. Many of them were also important partners for local employment offices or job centres.

The study was built on recently developed concepts and discussions concerning sustainable welfare and eco-social policies. One of the main questions is how to shift from a strict focus on job creation and economic growth to a possible degrowth society that still guarantees well-being and work to citizens. Our study on ecosocial innovations and their meaning for more sustainable labour market and unemployment policies contributes to that discussion. For our study we chose six cases from Finland, Germany, Belgium and Italy. These originated from a list of 50 examples from across Europe that we collected in an earlier mapping phase.

The results of our analysis revealed a number of innovative approaches and practices within the work activities of our ecosocial innovations. This led to three lessons on how to integrate environmental sustainability in labour market policies.

The first lesson refers to the sectorial level and alternative economic concepts. Several ecosocial innovations, and with them the training and job opportunities, could only be put in place due to certain public support structures. In the Belgian case a strong support for social economy was decisive, resulting in the direct involvement of the city in the establishment of the organization. In Italy the national and regional support for social cooperatives helped the ecosocial innovation to combine social and ecological goals in organic agriculture. To support whole sectors would therefore mean that more sustainable and decent jobs or subsidized work places could be created.

The second lesson for more sustainable labour market policies is directly connected to the organizational level. Ecosocial innovations are not acknowledged enough by the public sector. Their survival and development is often a constant struggle. Networks in certain fields such as community-based agriculture or recycling workshops do exist but remain marginal. What is needed are national or regional policy programmes to promote sustainable organizations such as ecosocial innovations so that they could further develop their practices and widen their networks. In addition, welfare institutions supporting unemployed people should be reformed to follow an ecosocial approach: to serve both the goals of social and environmental sustainability.

The third lesson refers to the individual level. As our study showed, there are no individual labour market measures or support programmes with a connection to environmental sustainability. This could for example mean subsidized work programmes that integrate social and environmental goal-setting. In Finland so-called green care could be widened to other groups; now it is mostly meant for people with disabilities. In Germany the “voluntary ecological year”, now only open for young people and not officially part of labour market policies, could serve as a model. One option could also be to simplify the combination of volunteering in sustainable organizations and receiving allowances at the same time.

The study shows how community-based organizations already offer sustainable and meaningful solutions for unemployed people. These solutions can help to reform labour market and unemployment policies towards a more sustainable future. Many of the ideas and practices are not new. It just needs the political will to shift the focus from the principles of activation and employability to more local, sustainable forms of social support. Labour market and unemployment policies have always sought to fulfil economic and social objectives. Now is the time to consider environmental sustainability as well. National and EU-wide reforms and currently developed programmes in the aftermath of the corona crisis should include this new component. Community based actors such as ecosocial innovations are already in place to play a more active role in the process.


About the authors

Ingo Stamm is a Postdoctoral Researcher at the Kokkola University Consortium Chydenius, Finland.

Aila-Leena Matthies is Professor of Social Work at the Kokkola University Consortium Chydenius, Finland.

Tuuli Hirvilammi is Senior Researcher at the Tampere University, Finland.

Kati Närhi is Professor of Social Work at the University of Jyvaskyla, Finland.

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