Buy Social: Redefining what the economy can achieve

Guest blogger Andrew Holeton has worked in the social enterprise sector for 15 years, holding operational, policy and advocacy roles. Since 2010 he has been with the Learning Enrichment Foundationleading various development projects, including a maintenance contract for Toronto’s Bixi Bicycle system.Andrew

 Andrew is a long-time member of the Canadian Community Economic Development Network (CCEDNet). He is also active on the steering committee of Social Enterprise Toronto (SET) and represents SET on the executive committee of Business Done Differently, a Community-University Research Alliance (CURA) funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.

My CCEDNet colleague Brendan Reimer recently said, “Every time we spend a dollar, we shape the world we live in.” Since discovering social enterprise 15 years ago, I’ve grown to admire an environment that recognizes people’s abilities, accommodates for challenges and gets folks to work. Right now in the social enterprise world, there is an unmistakable sense that we are on the cusp of something big. And there is a growing agreement amongst people that social and environmental sustainability are no longer just nice to have extras; they are goals that we absolutely and fundamentally must achieve.

Progress elsewhere is heartening. In the UK, social enterprises contributed £18 billion to the GDP in 2013. And the Social Value Act is now into its second year of encouraging public sector procurement officers to achieve social impact in purchasing. The UK has managed to make these significant investments in social enterprise at the same time as they have exacted major social service cuts. Faced with the same restraints, Canada has introduced similar cuts, yet spread them out over 20 years, without investing in a sustainable alternative. Sadly our regulations for government procurement don’t recognize social value. Major legislative change and political are needed to achieve this.

The non-profit I work for, the Learning Enrichment Foundation, is committed to implementing a social procurement policy. Though we do purchase from social enterprises, it’s not nearly as much as we could. We’ve come to the realization that we need to be more deliberate and to track how well we do. As we develop our policy, we’re grateful to benefit from the experience of others and to share our learning with non-profit colleagues.

In some ways, the private sector is well ahead of us. American federal government purchasing has required supply chain diversity for some time, even funding third parties to complete a certification process. Canadian companies doing business in the US are no strangers to this, and similar certification is now being introduced in Canada. In the next 6 to 18 months, we’ll also likely see US and Canadian certification for social enterprises which will be based on who the business employs or impacts. Diversity procurement officers in private sector companies are already on board, and it may well open up a whole new range of market opportunities for both existing and new social enterprises.

The best news is that consumer support of social enterprise and business with a social impact is clearly on the rise. The number of social businesses, products and services available is also increasing. If we really want this to work, we need government on board, and smart long-term investment to create an ecosystem that grows both supply and demand. It’s a far cry from what it could be. For now, we need to continue to support social enterprises whenever possible and advocate for others to do the same. But make no mistake—we’re actively embracing the idea that a successful economy is one that is inclusive and sustainable.

United Way Toronto is committed to helping people reach their full potential so that they can move from a life of poverty to one full of possibility. Through the Toronto Enterprise Fund, an innovative partnership with all three levels of government, United Way Toronto supports sustainable social enterprises that connect people facing barriers to employment with job training and work opportunities. Learn more about the Toronto Enterprise Fund.

One thought on “Buy Social: Redefining what the economy can achieve

  1. So happy I have volunteered to chair this year’s campaign for my company and learn the about the significant impact UW is having in our community!

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