Self-employed entrepreneurship for just transition in Europe: conference summary

Friday, 19 April 2024

A look back at the conference aimed at supporting self-employed entrepreneurs in their ecological and social transition, providing tools for trainers and enabling entrepreneurs to put sustainable development into practice.

Organised by POUR LA SOLIDARITÉ-PLS and its partners in the European project SURE (Sustainable and Responsible Entrepreneurship) on 10 April 2024 in Brussels, the event brought together over 50 participants: trainers and coaches, entrepreneurs, representatives of the Brussels-Capital, Wallonia and Nouvelle-Aquitaine (N-A) regions, representatives of European association networks, students, representatives of cooperatives, representatives of the Bulgarian trade union confederation and representatives of Belgian, French and Italian associations.

In the introductory session, Denis Stokkink (President of POUR LA SOLIDARITÉ-PLS) observed that the aim of the conference is to contribute to making the economy of the European Union (EU) sustainable and inclusive. From this perspective, a company that practises corporate social responsibility (CSR) is one that seeks to have a positive impact on society and respect the environment while being economically viable. There is therefore a major challenge in combining companies' economic plans with training in environmental issues. Many CSR resources already exist for large companies. However, the SURE partnership has identified a lack of CSR training for independent entrepreneurs and their mentors. Given their large numbers, the commitment of these entrepreneurs is essential to help achieve a just transition, in line with the EU's objectives, including the Green Deal for Europe.

Cécile Marsan (Director of the Co-actions entrepreneurs' cooperative in Nouvelle-Aquitaine), in her capacity as SURE coordinator, pointed out that it was the Erasmus+ programme that had made this transnational cooperation between Belgian, Bulgarian, French and Italian partners possible. She also pointed out that the three results are available on the project's website:

  • An assessment tool that enables the intermediate person to help the entrepreneur diagnose his or her sustainable practices, and to take steps to improve them by making appropriate recommendations, particularly in terms of well-being at work, the environment, regulations and human rights, purchasing policies, etc.
  • A training tool that provides key elements for trainers so that they can incorporate the various dimensions of sustainable development into their entrepreneurial training.
  • A white paper offering a series of recommendations to self-employed entrepreneurs and political decision-makers to enable the self-employed entrepreneurs to integrate a CSR policy on the theme of green and social skills.

Conférence : Les entrepreneur·euse·s autonomes pour  la transition juste  en Europe

Policies and stakeholders at the service of social and inclusive entrepreneurship

Facilitated by Denis Stokkink

Brigitte Fellahi-Brognaux (Head of Unit, Social and Inclusive Entrepreneurship, DG Employment and Social Affairs, European Commission) presented the Social Economy Action Plan. Adopted by the European Union in December 2021, the Plan sets out concrete measures to help mobilise the potential of the social economy. Since its adoption, more than 60 actions have been and/or are being implemented in 3 areas: framework conditions, recognition and visibility, and development prospects. These actions include: the launch in 2023 of the European Social Economy Gateway, which offers social economy actors easier access to information on EU funding, training opportunities, events and country-specific resources; the launch in 2023 of YEPA (the EU-OECD Academy on Youth Entrepreneurship Policy); and the implementation of the InvestEU programme to mobilise private investment for microfinance. In November 2023, the Council of the EU issued a series of recommendations to guide Member States in establishing framework conditions favourable to the development of the social economy. These recommendations stress in particular the importance of improving access to finance and to public and private markets for social economy organisations. It's important for everyone to get involved," emphasised Brigitte Fellahi, "and at every level.

Isabelle Grippa (CEO, Brussels Agency for Entrepreneurship " explained that is the Brussels-Capital regional agency for entrepreneurship. Its particularity is that it has merged all the public support policies for businesses: from creation to development and innovation, right through to internationalisation. With its prerogatives and its telephone number 1819, is the true regional gateway to entrepreneurship. In terms of the social and environmental impact on the economy, has taken an ambitious stance: to focus its action on the acceleration that entrepreneurship can bring to social and environmental innovation, mainly by supporting projects that aim to democratise the way businesses operate, as well as projects that are exemplary in terms of economic transition. To meet European obligations, from 2030 all companies in the Brussels-Capital Region will have to be exemplary to continue to benefit from public support. also has the task of preparing enterprises, between now and 2030, so that they can comply with the standards and still benefit from financial aid. The Agency has a financial envelope to stimulate the creation of new innovative social and environmental projects. For example, co-founded COOPCITY, an incubator and support centre for the creation of social economy enterprises. Since then, has defended COOPCITY's perpetuation by the Region and has obtained the necessary funding.

Jacques Le Priol (Neo Terra project manager, Nouvelle-Aquitaine Region) presented the birth and development of the Neo Terra approach. Since 2019, Neo Terra's mission has been to initiate a change in the overall trajectory of the N-A Region's public policies, with environmental and social transitions at the heart of the regional roadmap. Calls for projects, collective actions, sustainable development approaches, support for sustainable investment... Neo Terra offers everyone the tools to ensure their transition, and the proposed solutions are grouped around six areas called "ambitions": rebuilding natural resources for the future, anchoring solidarity at the heart of transitions, accelerating agro-ecological and food transitions, innovating for a responsible and sustainable economy, moving and living in territories adapted to climate change, and finally a unified approach to ecosystem health. For each ambition, there are monitoring indicators and transition elements, available in the reports on the Neo Terra website. Jacques Le Priol pointed out that transitions generate job losses in particular, and job losses should be seen not as the responsibility of the people made redundant (for example, redundancies following the closure of a factory and its relocation), but as a collective responsibility: the joint responsibility of individuals, companies and public authorities. It is therefore essential to place human beings at the heart of the balances sought by the transitions in our societies.

Photo de la table ronde sur Politiques et parties prenantes au service de l’entrepreneuriat social et inclusif

Promoting entrepreneurship towards transition: ways forward

Facilitated by Noémie Escortell (associate salaried entrepreneur, Co-operative Co-actions).

Based in Berlin, Céline Viardot (trainer, Donner du Sens A l'Entreprise) has developed her training activity with Smart Germany. Céline Viardot regularly comes to Belgium and France to train Smart members on how their organisations work economically, and how to strengthen the roots of their businesses. Céline Viardot suggested the possibility of including the transition of the functioning of autonomous companies through their roots, to then enable fair prices to be set. A company's roots are made up of three elements: the mission we want to give it, the vision, and finally the values on which the activity will be based. Europe is one of the fundamental values, which will enable us to level out with whom we will be working directly. Next, something will happen in terms of interpersonal communication that will enable the partnership to continue, which adds a fourth element to the roots: the ecosystem of stakeholders (associations, companies, local authorities, individuals) that will reflect the identity of the business. If we share our vision of the world with our customers, then that will justify the slightly higher prices. And thinking of your business as a tree, a living organisation, allows you to ask what it needs to grow and develop. By asking the question of the healthy entrepreneur and the healthy production tool, we can also ask what the real cost of self-employment is. A healthy entrepreneur is one who is able to have a satisfactory private budget on which to live, rest and anticipate risks.

Sophie Humbert (vice-president of CRESS N-A and manager of the communications cooperative "O tempora") began by stressing that the social economy is not a separate sector, but is present in all sectors, and that its players also need to be supported and assessed in their CSR approaches, to seek to improve, but also how to be resilient, how to adapt their business model to the changing world. Unlike the notion of CSR, the emergence of the notion of 'transition' has been a real plus for social economy players, with CRESS N-A feeling more at ease with the vocabulary. This emergence has led players in the social economy to claim that they are a driving force in the transition, and to be able to share tools aligned with the way in which the social economy works and its uniqueness. The challenge is to seek to improve the 'impact' we can have on the world, and at the same time to think about how the world impacts us and how social economy organisations can also redirect their activities to some extent. Sophie Humbert invited participants to discover the Ecological redirection guide for companies (in French: Guide de redirection écologique des entreprises), which can be downloaded online. It was initiated by CRESS N-A and is a tool suitable for all types of entrepreneur. Sophie Humbert also mentioned an ecological transformation and resilience programme in which CRESS N-A participated, initiated by the "Du vert dans les rouages" cooperative in Bordeaux: an approach aimed at very small businesses and modelled on an experiment to work with a panel of volunteer businesses. The experiment lasted 2 years and was completed at the end of 2023, giving trainers and coaches the opportunity to use it to help their companies evolve. The results of this experiment can be downloaded online: the white paper.

Jean-François Herz (co-director, Solidarité des alternatives wallonnes et bruxelloises, SAW-B) said that SAW-B advises and supports citizens and groups with new projects, to help them design and develop socially and economically innovative projects, to encourage and support cooperative practices between players, and to enable existing social enterprises to scale up. At the start of each support programme, the promoters are asked to identify the social needs (analysis of visions, missions, objectives) that their enterprise/project meets. SAW-B then works with the promoters to analyse how the need will be met (is it a project with a human dimension, what is its governance model, is it an emancipatory project, how will the profits be redistributed, etc.). For SAW-B, economic activities must meet a "social need". It is therefore a question of supporting an economy that is readopted to meet social needs, relocated to local areas, re-embedded in social ties and re-socialised. For Jean-François Herz, there is also a need to relocalise production and economic exchanges, on the one hand, and to reinvest massively in certain strategic sectors, those that touch on timeless material needs such as food, housing and information. Jean-François Herz emphasised that any alternative is all the stronger if it is firmly rooted and tested, and provided a list of field projects in Belgium, including food belts (Liège, Charleroi, etc.), distribution cooperatives and shops (Cabas, Beescoop, etc.) and citizen energy cooperatives. Finally, having a CSR policy requires a great deal of investment in communication, and it is a major challenge to compete with the communication resources developed by the major industrial groups.

Photo de la table ronde : Promouvoir l’entrepreneuriat vers la transition : pistes d’action

Conclusions and recommendations

Sebastien Paule (Development Director, Smart Cooperative) began by thanking all the participants and speakers for their involvement, as well as the Erasmus+ programme for supporting the organisation of the event. He concluded that, at institutional level, there was a desire to set out the framework for action by policies and stakeholders, and that the focus was "from local to global", rather than "from global to local". The European Commission reminded participants that responsibility for the social economy was very often local. As for the regions, Isabelle Grippa gave the example of the "shifting economy", with the principle of increasing aid to entrepreneurs as soon as they comply with a maximum number of Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) criteria, and Jacques Le Priol presented an approach that shows a long-term commitment to involve a territory in transitions. Céline Viardot showed how she has integrated ESG issues into her overall support for an ecosystem; a similar approach was followed by Jean-François Herz, who explained how SAW-B's support integrates externalities, whether positive or negative, into their support. Finally, Sophie Humbert recalled why the social economy has until now shown little interest in CSR issues: for fear of trivialising CSR, of trivialising the social economy. In conclusion, Sebastien Paule began with a down-to-earth reminder: changing and adapting practices costs time and money. To achieve this, the question of resources and funding was also raised during the conference, notably by Sophie Humbert. As for incentives, the European Commission mentioned microfinance, which supports entrepreneurs; several tools were also mentioned for financing innovative, social and environmental projects. We need the right means to facilitate change, and entrepreneurial cooperatives are certainly the right level. Sébastien Paule invited everyone to share their work with each other, to cooperate and to work together.

Conclusions et recommandations par Sébastien Paule, Directeur du développement, Coopérative Smart

The event ended with a networking lunch served on site by the eco-responsible caterer APUS & les cocottes volantes.

During and at the end of this conference, the testimonies collected indicate that the audience particularly appreciated :

  • The richness and quality of the presentations
  • The interesting and useful results of the project
  • The networking between players from different European countries
  • <>The inspiration that the event provided for their future activities.

The presentation materials used at the conference are available in this article.