What is a Social Enterprise?

Having a bit more time on my hands to pursue other areas of research, I have zoomed in on the work of social enterprises within fashion and textiles. I will soon be featuring some interviews on my blog with representatives from both UK and overseas social enterprises so I thought it best to provide an introduction before the interviews get under way.

So what is a social enterprise? I have to admit, I had barely heard of the concept before I started volunteering for social enterprise whomadeyourpants? in 2009. According to the Social Enterprise Coalition “Social enterprises are businesses trading for social and environmental purposes. Many commercial businesses would consider themselves to have social objectives, but social enterprises are distinctive because their social and/or environmental purpose is absolutely central to what they do – their profits are reinvested to sustain and further their mission for positive change”

Social enterprise can be traced a long way back, but it only really came into mainstream society in the 1990s. Social enterprises don’t want to be thought of as a charity, they make their money by selling a product or service. In ‘What comes first: your business message or your social mission?’ Chris Smith emphasises the need for having a high quality service or product because you cannot do social good without having a viable business behind you. This made me think of my interviews with Continental Clothing for my University research. Continental Clothing created the world’s first Carbon Reduction Label for a t-shirt and were always keen to highlight the importance of having a fashionable, good quality product in parallel to considering the ethical impact.

Many UK based social enterprises are providing a service. Perhaps this is an easier model to adopt, or maybe it just makes sense because social enterprises often help those from a disadvantaged background, and what better way than providing jobs, experience and a greater sense of community for those involved. The recent budget provided extra resources for entrepreneurs such as tax breaks and less red tape. Grants and extra assistance have been available for many social enterprises for a number of years, much of that help coming from UnLtd. The challenge is ensuring self sufficiency once those grants run out, and that involves really engaging the public towards the cause.

I find the idea of social enterprises within fashion and textiles particularly fascinating. An industry often thought of as exploitative and wasteful being used for a positive impact. Of course this is the direction that fashion needs to be going if we are to move towards a more sustainable future. These enterprises often use the native skills of workers in developing countries. Indeed my own MPhil survey found that fair trade fashion has connotations of sourcing items from countries such as India, Peru, and Bangladesh. Places renowned for embroidered textiles, hand weaving and such. Anyway, this is a continuing research project for me. I’ve come across some wonderful enterprises at ethical fashion events but if you know of any more or can help my research in any way, please let me know.

Post to Twitter