UK social business campaign has a long road to travel

Buy Social Corporate Challenge a long way off target to pump £1 billion into the sector by 2020

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A campaign to boost British businesses with a social mission has attracted major names, from banking to pharmaceuticals, but is far from its goal of channelling £1 billion (Dh4.51bn) into the sector by 2020, its founders said.

Pharmaceutical company Johnson & Johnson, consulting firm PwC and Santander bank have signed up to the Buy Social Corporate Challenge, launched in 2016 by Social Enterprise UK (SEUK), which represents the growing sector.

About a dozen companies participating in the scheme have spent a total of £45 million over the past two years with organisations that aim to address social and environmental issues as well as making a profit, SEUK said.

"We need to recruit many, many, more companies to make the dream of a £1bn spend with the sector a reality," Peter Holbrook, SEUK's head told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Britain is seen as a global leader in the innovative social enterprise sector, with about 70,000 businesses that employ nearly 1 million people, according to SEUK.

One of the initiative's aims is to demonstrate that businesses in any sector can buy from social enterprises, going beyond traditional conceptions of corporate social responsibility to include them in core business spending.

The insurance company Liverpool Victoria Friendly Society (LV=) announced recently that it was joining SEUK's Buy Social Corporate Challenge.

As one of Britain's biggest insurers, it said it spends about £1bn pounds a year across its supply chain.

"If we can look to spend just some of that with social enterprises who are trying to make a difference and help others, then we absolutely should," the company said.

LV= is already buying from Glasgow-based WildHearts Office, which supplies paper, pens and pencils and uses its profits to fund microfinance schemes in developing countries.

"Through those microloans, it is typically women that set up a business and the funds are used to educate their kids," said LV='s head of procurement Karl Poulsen.

"As a business, it's costing us no more to do this. In fact it's a bit cheaper than our previous incumbent. Why wouldn't we want to do that?"


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SEUK's chairman, Victor Adebowale, said several other businesses had expressed interest in joining the campaign.

"What you've got to do is talk to the unconverted," he told participants at an event in parliament.

"If your story is good, why not tell it to someone that hasn't heard it yet? That's how we get to a billion."

In addition, SEUK is encouraging UK start-up social enterprises by removing the member fee for smaller social enterprises, enabling them to join the largest social enterprise network in the world.

With a boom of these new start-up social enterprises, an increasing consensus that mutual models can rebalance the UK economy and deliver inclusive growth, and the never-more urgent need of the social enterprise model across the world, SEUK said its new membership model, implemented last month, will strengthen the collective voice of the sector, build the research base and support a bigger mandate for social and economic change.

Now, membership for all social enterprises with a turnover of less than £100,000 is free.

SEUK will also be enhancing and consolidating its membership offer for larger social enterprises who will now benefit from more exclusive offers, more opportunities to contribute to policy and lobbying work, as well as more practical support.

“Today we’re calling on all social enterprises to join our movement. The country’s current economic model is broken but together we can use our collective voice and mandate to bring about the change that is so desperately needed," Mr Holbrook said in a statement on the group's website.

"Increasingly more and more people recognise that social enterprise must be the future of business, we are seeing more and more CICs, community businesses, mutuals and co-ops emerge. Our message is that together we are much more powerful than we can ever be alone –  our country and our world is crying out for economic models that nourish and support our communities rather than extract wealth and exploit. We are building a powerful movement and we need more of you involved."