The Christmas Promise of Social Enterprise

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By Dr Scott Taylor, University of Birmingham, and Rosie Ginday MBE, Miss Macaroon

December is the moment when corporate advertising turns towards the social. Companies such as John Lewis, Boots, all of the major supermarkets, and even Amazon, stake a claim to doing good by doing business. For some, such as the Co-op group, there is even evidence to support this, as their YouTube channel shows.

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought the relationship between business and society into very sharp focus. We’ve seen very clearly how the social life of city centres relies on commuters, how suburban and village communities can support themselves if people shop locally, how regional economies can be affected by universities enrolling fewer students, and how global communities of producers and consumers are interwoven and inter-reliant. Above all, we’re experiencing a live demonstration of the way social problems are both created and addressed by businesses embedded in markets. Is there anything more we can do at Christmas than consume as usual to help tip the balance between business and society further towards doing good?

As more businesses fail, both large and small, creating unemployment and its attendant social problems, we’re likely to hear a lot more about a particular form of business as a potential solution – social enterprise. This way of doing business, often spoken of but rarely understood in its implications, respects capital markets and investor demands for profit, while directly addressing ‘social problems’ such as homelessness, long-term unemployment, systematic discrimination, or drug addiction. These concerns share a common feature – the desire to make society a better, kinder place for as many people as possible.

To achieve this, social enterprise companies trade for profit and for a defined social purpose. In practice, this means a legal commitment to reinvesting a portion of or even all profits into the surrounding community. The UK economy counts around 100,000 social enterprises, contributing more than £60 billion to the economy each year and employing nearly 2 million people. Each has a different mission, sometimes reaching to geographically distant communities as well as those living around the business. You can find anything you need produced or supplied by a social enterprise, from champagne to celebrate a birth to the clothes your baby needs. The common thread in engaging with social enterprises is the knowledge that your money makes a difference. In the UK this means that more than £5.5 million profit was reinvested last year into social missions.

As you might expect, many social enterprises are quirky in what they provide, often taking risks and innovating. If you start to ‘buy social’ you’ll find whole new worlds of goods and services, and surprising stories to bring smiles. Here’s the story of one very successful social enterprise, born and raised in Birmingham.

Miss Macaroon

Miss Macaroon is one of the social enterprises that reinvests 100% of profits into providing training and jobs for long term unemployed people in Birmingham. This often means working with people who have been homeless before, people who suffer from mental health issues, Care Leavers and ex-offenders. Many of these people have been told time and again that they are not good enough; confidence and self-esteem can be very low indeed. The key aim is getting people into employment, but this requires a lot of other work on both sides: first and foremost, building a safe and trusting environment, where self-belief and confidence building can happen. All Miss Macaroon customers understand that with every single purchase they make, no matter how big or small, they are helping to change someone’s life, so they are making a difference with their money.

Doing Business Well, Buying Locally, and the Promise of Technology

Miss Macaroon is unusual and exceptionally successful, as a business and as a social actor making a difference. However all social enterprises, and many conventional small locally owned businesses, have this potential. Their challenge as producers is reaching us. Our challenge as consumers, and as people living in a place that needs to be supported, is finding them. Social enterprises and small independent businesses can provide the highest quality products to compete with the everyday products we buy from supermarkets and global brands. In addition, knowing that what we buy does not simply generate profit, but goes towards making a difference – that means a good outcome for everyone in a difficult moment. Christmas will be a key moment for many social enterprises, as money gets tighter for many households during this recession. The next year will, however, be even more important, so it would be good to remember that social enterprise isn’t just for Christmas – they try to be here for us in difficult moments, so we should be there for them too if we can.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the University of Birmingham.

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