Social Innovation in Environment and Climate Change (WP6)

The principal focus of the work package is on production-consumption systems and the role that social innovation can play to make the entire supply chain more responsive to the adverse effects of resource depletion and the socioeconomic problems that accrue from unsustainable patterns of behaviour in the consumption of goods and services. Special attention is paid to the way in which social innovation can be conducive to innovation through bottom-up initiatives triggering behavioural adjustment in response to outstanding environmental issues, thereby turning them from serious problems to sources of broad-based sustainable development.

Although pollution problems have been alleviated to a certain degree in many European countries, the depletion of natural resources and the persistence of unsustainable consumption-production patterns still stand as major problems, notably in emerging and developing countries. Current approaches to decision-making and policy design
tend to be overly focused on short-term gains and take less account of environmental problems in the long run.

Increasingly, the negative effects of resource depletion constitute a serious development problem. Some regions, including many countries in Latin America, Africa and the Middle East suffer to a sizeable degree since they have particularly weak conditions for general awareness creation and means for those who suffer the worst consequences to make their interests heard. The development of new guiding principles as well as new institutional frameworks and governance approaches is therefore a necessary requirement to steer existing consumption-production systems away from unsustainable patterns of behaviour in the areas of resource extraction, processing, and waste disposal.

Existing innovation models
Since a great deal of environmental innovation is determined by EU standards and regulations, an important aspect of the international dimension of the proposed work to be carried out under this work package concerns the question to which extent environmental standards are respected elsewhere. In particular the consequences for European competitiveness from trade linkages between the EU for example in textiles with South East Asia and in food producing sectors with Latin American countries will be of particular interest. Public policy interface with civil society initiatives operating through social innovation will be further examined in the context of the Middle East, which will cast further light on the role of institution- and culture-specific factors.

Existing innovation models exhibit a variety of gaps and problem as regards the environmental sustainability of consumption-productions systems:

  • Very often the improvement of certain processes (e.g. in terms of resource use) is achieved, driven by interests in cutting costs
  • Regulation is very important as a driver of innovation, but with various degrees of intensity along the global supply chain
  • External costs are not reflected in the pricing of products and services (which is why regulation is so important)
  • Due to the segregation along the supply chain, innovation is geared towards optimising specific segments of the chain, but not the system of production consumption
  • The guiding vision of closing the material loop, for instance, is achieved only under rare circumstances and sometimes entailing major administrative costs (e.g. recycling models)
  • Preferences are often taken as given although information problems and lack of awareness prevent an articulation of needs and values broadly in the population

Social innovation
In order to induce innovations of consumption-production systems by means of social innovation-inspired policy models, the concept of social innovation should not be considered as a separate notion from the traditional concepts underpinning innovation processes. Social innovation can become a catalyst for an extended understanding of
innovation processes and for shifting the central focus of innovation (in the policy field of environmental innovation) from the optimisation of separate stages of the supply chain towards new forms of interaction between actors and institutions that are oriented by changes of the production-consumption system as whole. In this sense, through inducing new patterns of conscious behaviour and informed choices social innovation can become a
catalyst for bringing about significant reductions in environmental impacts at the level of production-consumption systems.

Social innovation can greatly contribute to solving some of these problems, in particular when user behaviour (i.e. the consumption side) is an important factor in the realisation of cleaner and environmentally more sustainable production systems. We propose in this work package to analyse the role of social innovation in four areas:

  • Recycling has increasingly gained acceptance as an approach to blend environmental and economic dimensions. In the move towards cleaner production-consumption systems, closed-loop business models that represent an important step towards achieving the goal of zero waste by completely reusing, recycling and composting all materials involved in the production, will be studied.
  • Social innovation plays an important role when it comes to informing conscious consumer choices. Transparency and guaranteed standards (e.g. through labeling) are important pre-conditions for consumers to make informed choices. Labeling will be studied as a social innovation that allows for conscious choices on the consumer side.
  • Social innovation through labeling is not only useful to affect the choices of final consumers, but it can also serve (e.g. through the labeling of eco standards) as a transparency enforcement instrument of environmental and social conditions along the supply chain. Since the definition of eco standards are under the domain of the final producers (e.g. food production, cosmetics, textiles), we propose to study models of eco standard labeling
    (such as for example the Fairtrade labeling system) that have been tested to ensure better transparency and working conditions as a social innovation that falls under the responsibility of the production side.
  • Various initiatives to put in place more sustainable production and consumption patterns, with bearing on food, water, land use, and so forth, are hampered by a lack of general awareness and information problems, especially in developing regions. Special attention will be paid to means for public policy and civil society to evolve in tandem so as to open up for social innovation in support of increased awareness and associated behavioural change.

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