Social Cohesion Research and Early Warning

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Background of the Forum 2004: Socially responsible consumption and finance systems

The Council of Europe, as the “home of democracy and human rights”, acknowledges every community-based effort that helps to make society a decent setting for everyone to live in.

Accordingly, in the revised Strategy for Social Cohesion (2004), the concept of shared responsibility spurs governments to take into account the emergent “concern on the part of individuals to develop new forms of economic action capable of contributing to social cohesion ... using the means of action that are open to them as individuals such as their power as consumers and the way in which they use their savings” (para. 30).

Nowadays, the organisation of social cohesion must come to terms with the assertion of the individual and of his social responsibilities.

How are connections that favour social cohesion to be established between the functioning of society and day-to-day individual practices in consumption and utilisation of financial resources? Finance and consumption are pre-eminently perceived as expressions of a burgeoning individualism - hence the question of how to foster the social responsibilities inherent in these individual actions.
The Forum 2004 “Solidarity finance and responsible consumption: official and community commitment to social cohesion” organised by the Social Cohesion Development Division of the Directorate General of Social Cohesion setted out to answer this question.

It is necessary to “qualify” the economic relations involved: initiatives in favour of ethical, solidarity-based finance and responsible consumption seek to transform these relations into links that favour social cohesion. In addition, they can fulfil the need to discover a dimension of individual commitment not tied to an overly specific occupational, ideological or religious identification (exemplified by the more traditional collective formations of the political party and trade union type, certain associations, etc.). So, what we are concerned with is the interaction between the individual, his dealings with the market, and social cohesion.

Ethical and socially responsible initiatives are primarily directed at the sovereign consumer. They do not seek to restrict but rather to broaden the range of choice, by subsuming parameters that allow the consumer's relationships with other people, the world at large and the personal environment to be apprehended.

Which information does the consumer need to modify his behaviour along the desired lines? Apparently the informational need is on the “qualitative” plane and concerns production processes and the different forms of savings investments. Basically, labels certifying the ethical and social soundness of products will in fact “qualify” them from this standpoint.

However, outside a limited circle of cognoscenti, it takes an effort to go past straightforward appraisal of “visible” quality components and gain insight into what are called “invisible” components. Quality standards embodying societal, environmental, cultural and justice-related principles may indeed bring the individual to choose a consumer good or a savings scheme incorporating certain essentials of social cohesion.
In a society like ours founded on rights, the formation of links between the individual, the markets and social responsibility calls for deep thinking about the need for a new wave of rights:

    right to be acquainted with the conditions of production/sale (including the impact on workers and small firms where the “lowest prices” rationale is concerned);
    right to know about the use of savings deposits;
    right to creation of enterprises through collective support;
    right to be informed of the difference between the price paid to the producer and the final sale price, etc.

All these rights would consolidate the actual principle of freedom of choice. Forum 2004 also raised the question why responsible individual choices should be a matter of official interest.

In general terms, it is observed that mastery of the globalised economy is becoming an ever tougher challenge for democratic governance deriving its legitimacy from the territorial base and from political consensus. The tempos of democracy are slow and those of the market are uncontrollable; one does not succeed in taming the other. Thus the economy eludes democratic political control. How, then, can we restore a connotation of “polis” to the economic act? Incentive to responsible choice becomes crucial and necessitates interchange and suitable legal frameworks.

In that context, the outcome of the Forum was the creation of a European platform for public sector-community interchange concerning the requisite conditions for making common benefit and social cohesion more a part of citizens' economic acts. This interchange is concomitant with observation of current practices as regards legal frameworks as well as collaborative paradigms.

The Forum is thus to take stock of how ethical and socially responsible initiatives are progressing in terms of concepts, impact and legal frameworks, without pausing too long over the explanation of any one concept or frame of reference, but preferably dwelling on their contribution to social cohesion in globalised societies in search of new political goals (common benefit and cohesion) and new collaborative approaches.