Business in the UK and around much of the world is stuck with the perspective of the past in assuming social development is a side-line to business goals; this attitude ignores massive opportunities available to those willing to explore the concept of socially inclusive business.

Kym Viet, a social enterprise that employs women with hearing impediments to make handicrafts

Kym Viet, a social enterprise that employs women with hearing impediments to make handicrafts

The relationship between social outcomes and business success

In a social initiative, social outcomes and business success are mutually dependent, rather than the former being a drain on the latter. Although this idea is taking off, it is contrary to the commonly held view of social development in a business context: in big business, Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) is often seen as an obligatory inconvenience, the box of which can be ticked by, for example, sending employees off for a couple of days per year to donate their time to a social cause, after which they can return to their ‘real’ work.

This process, and the attitude to social development that it breeds, is wasteful and misses opportunities for innovative modifications or supplements to existing, traditional business models.

Big businesses should view CSR obligations as impetus to explore innovative opportunities aligned with their business that they would not have previously considered. It’s often the case that these opportunities indeed support the long-term sustainability of a business, increasing current and future value and make such a company more attractive to young talent. Ensuring sustainable business practices early on mitigates future losses.

An example of social outcomes and business success driving each other is Ben & Jerry’s. Ben & Jerry’s have a program that ensures all stages of their supply chain align with their mission of ‘making ice cream that’s a force for positive change’. One example of these suppliers is the bakery that makes the brownies for Chocolate Fudge Brownie and Half Baked. Greyston’s Bakery employs those who would otherwise find it difficult to get a job, such as ex-offenders. More broadly, Ben & Jerry’s is one of Unilever’s many products, a company that has famously declared that their purpose is to make sustainable living commonplace through their Sustainable Living Plan.

Starting from scratch

Becoming a social entrepreneur is an attractive prospect to anyone increasingly interested in the implication of actions they take and the impact these have on those around them; according to Peter Holbrook, CEO of Social Enterprise UK, these people are now attributed with ‘rock star’ status.

Starting an enterprise or initiative from scratch allows the founders to make tackling social problems and delivering social outcomes integral to the business. By contrast, the prospect of changing the operating model of an existing business to achieve social outcomes might be considered too onerous for the benefits; this is not always the case and instead may prove to be a sensible and profitable business strategy. For large businesses, which often have greater inertia against change, moving to a more social model is intended to ensure longevity and sustainability, but does typically require the business and its investors to prioritise long-term gains over short term ones, an approach that does not always sit well with shareholders and managers eager for quick wins.

In Laos, a country where the concept of social business and social enterprise is in its infancy, there are a handful of small companies who have recognised the benefits of incorporating social outcomes into their business model. Saffron Coffee, a speciality coffee producer in Laos, is a self-proclaimed ‘social business’ with a café in Luang Prabang, northern Laos. Previous attempts by organisations such as the UN to persuade hill tribes to grow coffee had not been supported with the necessary education, or even demand for the product. Saffron Coffee works directly with these hill tribes, to establish durable partnerships to encourage the farming of Arabica coffee as an alternative (or addition) to low-yielding rice and corn. They also provide coffee farmers with sprouts, the guarantee to purchase every ripe cherry at above market price and coffee promoters who provide on-going training and education about more efficient growing techniques. The company have successfully ensured economic stability for hill tribes in Laos, whilst also creating a reliable supply of coffee for their business.

Saffron Coffee, a speciality coffee producer in Laos

Saffron Coffee, a speciality coffee producer in Laos

The argument over defining ‘Social Enterprise’

The definition of social enterprise is contested and remains broad: it ranges from normal businesses with some social elements to businesses set up with explicit social aims at their core. This argument is only relevant in a legal sense, to maintain standards of regulation.

What is relevant at a broader and more inclusive scale is the wholesale cultural acceptance of business being carried out with a social cause. Movement in this direction does not have to be instigated at the highest level. Instead, innovative ideas of how to make a company more sustainable and more socially inclusive should be welcomed at all levels of a business. If such ideas are considered and taken on board, particularly from more junior members of staff, and if social impact becomes everybody’s purpose, open-mindedness and inclusivity will inevitably follow.