Italian Solidarity Purchasing Groups: A Critical Assessment of Their Social Impact

Friday, June 24, 2016: 9:00 AM-10:30 AM
201 Moses (Moses Hall)
Lara Maestripieri, University of Pavia, Pavia, Italy
Nadia von Jacobi, University of Pavia, Pavia, Italy
Toa Giroletti, UniversitÓ Cattolica del Sacro Cuore di Piacenza, Piacenza, Italy
Social innovation has increasingly become a key concept in European political discourse, because it is considered to be one of the most promising tools to overcome the long-term consequences of the economic crisis and of the current austerity paradigm. Grassroots’-based and innovative solutions proposed by citizens bear the potential of filling institutional gaps currently left open by neoliberal markets and the top-down logic of public sector intervention. Numerous studies are turning their attention on the matter, yet few scholars have so far focused their analysis on the effective capacity of social innovation experiences in reducing the socio-economic marginalisation of their target groups. This study harvests from an empirical investigation of Italian Solidarity Purchasing Groups, which have been analysed within the 7th Framework EU-project CRESSI.

Stemming from a theoretical model that has as its main reference the Capability Approach (Sen, 1985; 1987; 1992; 1998; 1999; 2009), CRESSI investigates the socio-structural dynamics that first of all generate socio-economic marginalisation within the market and society in general, and then the alleviating effect that social innovation phenomena can provoke on such marginalisation. In doing this, the conceptual framework of CRESSI concentrates on the pressure that social innovations exert on so-called 'social forces'. These are socio-structural factors, which in economic sociology have been defined as 'irreducible' (Beckert, 2010) for the study of changing and innovative societies: the role of actor networks, institutions and cognitive frames and how they interrelate with the social innovation process is of particular importance for the analysis. The way in which citizens and marginalised groups are achieving greater 'empowerment' through social innovation practices is further articulated along six different life dimensions (related to nature-technology-culture-economy-security-politics). These dimensions are meant to be relevant for the construction and maintenance of 'social power' (Mann 1986, 1993, 2012a, 2012b; Heiskala, 2014).

Italian Solidarity Purchasing Groups’ (SPGs) movement is a peculiar bottom-up social innovation that has been spreading in the last 20 years in Italy. It is composed mostly of self-organised groups of citizens who collectively buy from small organic producers in Italy. They are mainly driven by the idea of producing new forms of social relationships between consumers and farmers and of promoting alternative forms of consumption which abandon the "cheaper is better" logic and instead promote political consumerism in which solidarity and sustainability of production are key ingredients of the acquired products. These alternative systems therefore try to develop a different approach to the production-consumption chain. The historical foundation of SPGs can be traced back since the 19th Century, when mutual purchasing groups have been promoted in the experience of consumers’ cooperatives. More recently, the no-global movement and the diffusion of fair trade during the ‘90s have favoured the progressive diffusion of consumerism awareness among the upper classes (both in terms of purchasing power and of cultural capital) that sustained the progressive growth of the SPGs movement. It is now in a mature phase of the social innovation cycle and new more institutionalised forms (such as emporiums and associations) are now complementing the original informal groups of consumers. The CRESSI EU-project has the final goal of assessing if the SPGs and their alternative systems have an impact on small and micro farms in the country, in particular in reducing their socio-economic marginalization.

The paper will present preliminary results, stemming from semi-structured interviews with representatives of 35 Solidarity Purchasing Groups, out of a representative sampling of the Italian territory. They have been selected on the basis of the degree of vulnerability of the context in which they operate: 1/3 from the least vulnerable provinces, 1/3 from the middle and 1/3 from the most vulnerable provinces in Italy. The interviews have mostly reconstructed how each SPG was born and how it operates, what its main references in term of social forces (networks, institutions and cognitive frames) are and how they interact with producers, which according to the research team of CRESSI represent the main beneficiaries of this social innovation. Along with these, a series of key-informants interviews and desk-research have been carried out in order to reconstruct which were the historical roots of SPGs and to understand the life-cycle of this social innovation.

The study provides new insights on SPGs within the Italian national context. Previous studies have so far been widely concentrated on the SPGs’ capacity to empower consumers in terms of political and economical participation. Our focus on suppliers, instead, provides new evidence on the potential social impact that this Italian social innovation is producing. We expect that the fieldwork will shed lights on the main social forces involved in the social innovation process and on how SPGs’ activities can actually operate in order to reduce the socio-economic marginalisation of their small and micro providers.