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How social enterprises are transforming the world of big business

On the face of things, there is no wider gulf than that between the profit-driven motives of big business and the more sustainable values held by social enterprises.

But from the compassionate capitalism of firms such as The Body Shop to the efforts of software giant Salesforce to ensure pay equality, it's clear the two business models have more in common than might at first be realised.

And the trend for large-scale corporations to act in enlightened, progressive ways has soared in recent years thanks to the revolution started by community-minded businesses such as TuffCycle, The Big Issue and Cafe Direct.

There's now a whole host of massive multinational firms taking up the cause of sustainable business by creating new, eco-friendly ways of working, putting morals before money and trying to give back to the community.

Benefiting the planet

Internet giant Google is just one example of such a corporation.

To some, the brand has become a byword for corporate greed, with its sky-high profits and dodgy tax records.

But the firm has also been making a big effort to change this image by investing in renewable energy projects all around the US.

As part of the Google Green initiative, it has committed around $2 billion to help fund eco-friendly schemes, including a wind farm in Okalahoma and a solar power plant in Utah.

And it’s not only American companies that are using business practices more often seen in social enterprises, as British firms are rushing to get in on the act too.

Creating new ways of doing business

Over the last few years, Marks and Spencer has been placing a big emphasis on sustainability by working with its suppliers in more than 70 countries to create fairer workplaces and to reduce its environmental impact.

It has been launching eco-friendly factories in China and Turkey, setting fair pay standards in Cambodia and Sri Lanka and encouraging sustainable water use in Kenya.

These efforts have had a positive effect on the environment, but they have also been seen to boost its bottom line by reducing waste and saving energy.

This is just one example of how big business has been forced to come up with new ways of working because of the mould-breaking social companies all over the world that are putting people before profits.

Putting people before profits

The influence of social enterprises on traditional business practices has been seen most recently in comments made by the head of consumer goods company Unilever.

Speaking at the firm’s Sustainable Living Young Entrepreneurs Awards in London earlier this year, Paul Polman attacked business leaders for focusing solely on profits and failing to address global issues such as climate change.

“Profit is not a purpose, it’s an end product,” he said. “I always want a deeper result. People assume that if you do something good, it must cost money. I don’t know where they get that idea from.”

Unilever has been making serious headway when it comes to sustainability, setting up zero-waste factories and making moves to combat deforestation.

And Mr Polman has singled out the new generation of social enterprises for inspiring the leaders of big businesses to serve people and the planet, rather than the other way around.


- Photograph courtesy of Sheffield City Council