Interview with Michele Pellegrini: The experience of a social cooperative, Cadore in Italy

The ILO and its International Training Centre in Turin, mark ten-years of organizing the Academy on the Social and Solidarity Economy (SSE). Since 2010, more than 1,200 participants from all continents participated in the 11 editions of the academy. To mark this occasion, the ILO’s Cooperatives Unit is conducting a series of interviews that features colleagues and experts who have been closely engaged in making the last eleven editions of the ILO Academy on SSE possible. In these interviews, they reflect on their experiences and also share their thoughts on the current COVID-19 crisis and post-crisis situation.

Article | 29 May 2020

The ILO’s Cooperatives Unit (COOP) organized a first virtual interview live streamed on the Collective Brain YouTube channel to celebrate the ten-year anniversary of the ILO Academy on the Social and Solidarity Economy (SSE).

The interview with Michele Pellegrini features the experience of the Cadore, a social cooperative that supports the inclusion of disadvantaged people into work. Michele Pellegrini, the vice-president and officer in charge of project design and development at the Cadore Social Cooperative, was one of the experts who presented at the 10th edition of the Academy in Italy in 2019 on “Social innovation, local communities and inclusive and sustainable development”.

The interview started with an introduction from Valentina Verze from ILO COOP on “community enterprises” which have been growing in Italy, as highlighted in a recent mapping report (available in Italian). Conducted in 2019, the mapping shows that the number of community enterprises more than doubled between 2017 and 2019 from 48 to 109, especially tourism (41 per cent), agriculture (21 per cent), personal services (14 per cent) and culture (10 per cent).

How can you match these social and environmental scopes with an economic sustainability? Can you tell a bit more on the dimension of this experience, especially in terms of members, workers, sectors, turnover and the trends of these numbers in the last years?

Our cooperative is a social cooperative located in the North East of Italy in the province of Belluno, started in 2008 from a joint effort of different stakeholders, including individuals and local institutions, counting municipalities, other social cooperatives and umbrella organizations of these cooperatives.

We work in a rural mountain area in the Cadore valley, which is composed of 22 municipalities and approximately 32,000 residents. As social cooperative of B-type in Italy, our main scope is to give work opportunity to disadvantaged people. Moreover, we create job opportunities in sectors that are strategic for the development of the area. Currently the main sectors we work in are: environmental maintenance; cleaning and sanitizing; and tourism.

We are a solid enterprise: we have 190 members, 200 workers and a revenue of 3.4 million euro (2019 data). Even if the economic and financial sustainability is one of the premises to run these activities since we are an enterprise, the profit is not our sole purpose. It is our way to put in place, develop and fulfill new projects. The profits from the commercial activities are in fact reinvested in the cooperative and the community.

What are the key challenges that your community has been facing in the last years? How has the cooperative responded to these challenges and why being a community cooperative made a difference?

The link with the community is essential. You can see it also from the name itself of the cooperative: Cadore, as the valley who gave birth to this venture!

In the last years, as in many other rural and mountain areas in Italy, we have experienced a significant depopulation challenge. In the last ten years (2008-2018), the population of the province of Belluno decreased from 211,000 to 203,000. The territory lost on average two person every day. There are several causes to this phenomenon. Among them are a strong emigration to urbanized areas, especially of youth looking for better working opportunities, and a low birth rate.

In this sense the cooperative was created in partnership with local actors – private and public – to tackle this depopulation problem and create work opportunity that are also inclusive of the most fragile population. Today we have 10 municipalities as members of the cooperative, two of which are board members.

In the coming years, we will have two important events, which will probably bring a lot of visitors and incomes to the territory: the Alpine Sky World Cup (2021 or 2022) and the Winter Olympics Games 2026. In my opinion, it will be crucial that the local governments, especially the provincial government, invest the incomes not only for short-term infrastructures, but also for long-term improvements that will ensure social and environmental sustainability of the territory, even after these big events are over.

We know that many businesses have been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. How is your cooperative dealing with the crisis? In your opinion, what are the most relevant measures taken by the Italian Government in support of the economy at this stage and for the recovery stage?

COVID-19 pandemic has created many problems for our cooperative, just like for many other enterprises in Italy. The pandemic hit our country hard, so the restrictions for businesses were quite strict. The closure of schools and tourism facilities affected provision of our environmental maintenance and touristic services for instance at a restaurant we run.

However, it was also an opportunity for our cleaning and sanitizing sector, which has seen a growth. A diversification of businesses, rooted in the community needs, has proved to be a resilient strategy so far.

The government is working for specific measures to face the emergency but the practical specificities are not yet so clear to us. What we observe is that the SSE organizations are under the same threat as traditional companies, including family businesses and small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). Nevertheless, I believe the potential role of social enterprises should be considered as a means of ensuring economic recovery in a sustainable and inclusive way at the local level.

I hope that in the future policy makers will recognize the importance of SSE enterprises, and their contribution to the triple bottom line – economic, social and environmental. I think that this is already happening in our community.

More information on Cadore social cooperative can be found in a paper released in 2016 and available in Italian here.