Exploration of internationalisation began from participants' own wardrobes

Experiences Erasmus+ Erasmus+ for youth work Internationalisation Sustainable development
Groups of Finnish and Italian young people developed an Erasmus+ project around fast fashion. In addition to environmental issues, the project participants learned about internationalisation and culture in a way that would be less likely for them in normal life.
Italialaisia ja suomalaisia nuoria metsässä.

At the beginning of August, a group of Finnish and Italian young people convened in a slightly more unusual place. The groups of young adults from the city of Vantaa and the town of Molfetta in the south of Italy were familiarising themselves with waste incineration at the waste incineration plant of Vantaan Energia.

Incineration of waste was equally exotic activity to everyone present, both the Finns and the Italians.

“We Finns weren't familiar with it, either. We all learned an awful lot about the Finnish recycling system,” says Youth Services Coordinator Joel Saikkonen from the City of Vantaa Youth and Community Services, who led the Finnish group.

The tour of the waste incineration plant was part of the visit organised for the group of Italian young adults in the Erasmus+ project Youth with a Purpose – Pathway to a sustainable future led by the City of Vantaa Youth Services.

At the plant, the participants learned that, coincidentally, tons of waste have been transported specifically from Italy to be incinerated in Vantaa this year. The reason is that wood fuel is no longer imported from Russia and that Italy does not have sufficient waste incineration capacity.

The wardrobe and digital platforms as sources of learning

The project implemented a bilateral youth exchange with a programme built around environmental issues. Recycling, circular economy and especially the fast fashion industry were specified as the theme for the project funded from the Erasmus+ programme.

“When we were planning the project together with the young people, we began to realise that one of the most concrete approaches to environmental problems was our own wardrobe. Now we know more about what a huge source of emissions the clothes industry actually is,” Saikkonen says.

The young people played a central role in planning the whole project. Different ways of informal and formal learning were included in the programme.

In addition to Vantaan Energia’s plant, the groups visited the Reuse Centre in Nihtisilta and other relevant places.

According to Saikkonen, the participants learned especially by “seeing and experiencing”. In addition, digitalisation also had a central role in the project.

For example, one of the young people created an urban orienteering map on the online platform. The map was then used to find second hand stores in Kallio in Helsinki and to carry out tasks marked on the map.

“This shopping tour showed us how you can find cheap, high-quality treasures second hand.”

From the very beginning, planning was carried out together on the Discord server set up by the young people. The server was also a platform for lighter discussions through chats and video calls.

On Discord, the daily schedules and the workshop outputs of small groups could also be found easily in one place.

“What we learned each day was also compiled on a Padlet platform. At the end of the exchange, it was full of the participants’ reflections on the topics of the week. We also messaged actively on WhatsApp and drew up social media posts.”

“Not everyone has the same opportunities”

The group from Vantaa visited Molfetta earlier in the spring. An ordinary person from Vantaa is on average not likely to ever travel to the town of Molfetta in their life, or the other way round.

However, the encounter of the young participants was perhaps an even more unlikely event. Both groups consisted of young adults with fewer opportunities for international experiences.

The Finnish group was gathered together from the participants of the City of Vantaa's leisure activities for young adults.

The group as such is open to everyone interested, but the leisure activities unit’s close cooperation with youth workshops and outreach youth work also contributes to its composition. Their target group is young people who do not have a job or a study place.

“However, we do not define our group or its activities through it. But it is a fact that not everyone has the same opportunities for learning about other cultures. It was great that we could make such experiences possible,” Saikkonen says.

The Italian group had been formed by Associazione InCo, an organisation that carries out youth work and internationalisation work. The small town of Molfetta is located somewhat remotely, which is why young people from the town may have limited international contacts.

Beginners leading the project

The idea of starting the project was originally born when Saikkonen and a colleague of his participated in an internationalisation workshop organised by the Regional State Administrative Agency and the Finnish National Agency for Education.

“Our small team does not have any experience in EU projects, but the event made us realise that leading a project would not be so daunting after all. We felt that they encouraged us to seize the opportunity instead of us having to beg for an opportunity to start a project.

More than 20 young people in the leisure activities group for young adults became interested in the project at first. In the end, there was a group of ten people who could commit themselves to the project.

After some exploration work, they found the project partner in Italy, where a group of the same size was gathered together.

“The Italians proved to have a lot of experience in EU projects. This was very useful as we were all beginners.”

Breaking boundaries by learning to know each other

According to Saikkonen, the participants on both visits experienced and learned much more than they could achieve, for example, by travelling as tourists.

“This was an effective course on the themes of fast fashion and the environment. At the same time, I saw how the participants jumped outside their comfort zone.”

The project continues with the finalisation work and final reporting until the end of this year, but Saikkonen already considers the project a success.

“The groups have worked six months on a project with people whose names they could not pronounce in the beginning,” Saikkonen says satisfied.

The participants learned about each other and about their partners’ cultures, for example, through the pleasant time spent together at the camp centre.

“We learned to know different people and customs. We noticed that the Italians want to have something sweet for breakfast. They fell in love with the tiny Finnish cinnamon buns!”

Towards a Greener Europe

The article is part of the Towards a Greener Europe story series, in which we highlight the environmentally responsible practices of Erasmus+ projects as well as Erasmus+ projects that promote sustainable development.

 Text: Matias Manner