Alastair Davis: Let’s make social enterprise our default

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The idea of the thrifty Scot is a popular cultural trope across Britain. Yet look at our record as a nation, and this label seems grossly unfair and at odds with Scotland’s social and economic development over the past 200 years.

Far from being miserly, Scotland has been a hotbed of philanthropy and remains to this day among the most generous countries in the western world for charitable donations.

Scotland’s social conscience is far from restricted to charitable giving. We also enjoy a proud reputation for having pioneering new forms of “values-based” business models including co-operatives and mutuals. Fast forward to 2017, and we can now count the growth of social enterprise among our proud achievements. We might not have invented the concept but we are most certainly doing as much, if not more, than anyone else, to grow and nurture social enterprise into a credible alternative to traditional business models.

This is particularly evident within the retail sector. An increased demand among consumers, for authenticity, provenance and social value are finally persuading retailers that there is commercial, as well as social, merit in “selling social”.

The main problem to date in achieving this breakthrough has been the supply. With large retailers traditionally reluctant to broker deals with smaller social enterprises, the market opportunity to create social enterprise products for retail has been narrow and, consequently, opportunities for the public to buy have been limited. However, the market is on the cusp of the change.

Last year Asda, in partnership with Social Investment Scotland (SIS), ran the UK’s first ever social enterprise supplier development academy, with the aim of helping social enterprises achieve listings across the retailer’s estate of stores. Since then, two of the participating social enterprises, Brewgooder and Heroes Vodka, have secured listings, providing them with a scale that was previously unimaginable.

This year an even bigger cohort of social enterprises will take part in Asda’s pioneering academy. With demand for social products higher than ever, alongside an increased capability to create commercially viable products there is a golden opportunity for these social enterprises to make the transition from small market traders to large-scale suppliers.

With this transition comes a significant social benefit. By increasing revenue streams, these businesses will be able to create much more sustainable and longterm social impacts for our communities.

From supporting disadvantaged young people into employment to creating long-term environmental impacts, these social enterprises have the ability to make a major difference across a number of social indicators.

The opportunity is clear. If we can continue to build markets for social enterprises among the general public as well as the private and public sectors, then we can begin to mainstream social enterprise into the public consciousness.

Just as Fair Trade and organic were once niche food movements restricted to the independent retail sector, maybe it’s now social enterprise’s time to become as common a cultural emblem as both of these two movements. If we can increase the supply of social products by increasing their availability through high street retailers, it’s then up to us to use our money to create a positive impact on the world we live in.

The more we buy, the greater the impact. Given Scotland’s long history of charity giving, I’m confident that, given the option, more of us would consciously choose to buy social.

Alastair Davis is chief executive, Social Investment Scotland