In talking about social change, across cultures and borders, we often get stuck on rules. The “either”/ “or” rule”. The “Yes, but…” barrier. And social enterprise seems to get boxed up too. Non-profit driven or for-profit inclusive? Mission-focused or corporate creative?
Social enterprise seems to be pushed to choose sides. It gets confusing and complicated. So, I like to think of it like this: Social enterprises understand that profit and social change are not mutually exclusive; you can generate income by selling a product or service in the marketplace and create positive social, environmental or cultural impact.
After recently returning from Asia, working on international development, women’s rights and income generation for the past four years, I’m really excited to be back in Toronto and find out what’s happening in social enterprise. Like dedicated spaces for people to meet and share ideas at Centre for Social Innovation, helpful services like the Eva’s Phoenix Print Shop, and storefronts popping up such as Westend Food Co-op in Parkdale and Paintbox Bistro in Regent Park. Social enterprises make me eager to see who and what’s behind the push for change.
Social good and savvy design
I got to see traditional social enterprise in action volunteering with WEAVE (Women’s Education for Advancement and Empowerment), an NGO with an innovative income generation program for refugee and migrant women on the Thai-Burma border. Confined to camps and dependent on services provided by aid organizations, refugees face serious risks working outside the camps, including exploitation and violence, in addition to breaking Thai law. Yet with only basic rations for families to subsist on, the need for additional income for nutritious food and school supplies is real.
I learned that Burma is famous for its traditional weaving, done on back-strap looms, with each ethnic area proudly maintaining their own styles and patterns. The program supports handicraft production in three refugee camps and artisans also sew and embroider goods. Women decide their own hours and how much orders they want to do.
Expert weavers and sewers take on leadership roles and share their skills and experience with women wanting to earn their own income. A local WEAVE staff member from a nearby field office supports them, in addition to coordinating supplies and customer orders. On one visit to meet with artisans inside the camps, trainees in a partnering program had created what looked to me to be good samples. Yet as these were carefully inspected by the leaders, along with new team members learning about quality control, they quickly pointed out weak stitching and uneven seams. They explained how they see each product as reflecting them and their culture to customers. This is part of what makes WEAVE products unique. But not the only reason. This is not a charity shop donation. Their excellent quality and savvy design, integrating indigenous patterns and colours with modern products such as Kindle covers and iPad cases, are what make you stop and buy- alot. And the impact continues by benefiting the local economy, with supplies purchased in nearby towns and staff hired from the community.
Another great example is the Puzzlebox Art Studio and Training Centre also on the Thai-Burma border. Puzzlebox mentors young artists from Burma and Thailand, often coming out of the area’s migrant school system. Trainees learn valuable skills, not only in building their artistic experience, but also their marketing and business acumen, helping to sell their products in the onsite shop and going on field trips to city galleries and markets for inspiration and market research. They make really creative items, and often incorporate their own cultural backgrounds into designs. I love how Puzzlebox brings eco value into play too, recycling old coffee grounds and newspapers into designs. They just released messengers bags, featuring a beautiful hand drawing of a nearby refugee camp, which have already sold out, with plans to develop more and market abroad.
I recently read about Oliberté, a fast-growing footwear company started in Oakville. When deciding where to manufacture its premium leather shoes, boots and bags, Oliberté decided to create opportunities in a job market that greatly needed it. They chose Ethiopia as their first factory base in Africa, a country where many people need jobs, but also one with a growing economy. Oliberté has hired local managers and ensures workers are paid well and treated fairly. Now there are 70 jobs created, with plans to grow across the continent, and a manufacturing sector being developed along with hands-on skills in a country which was mainly focused on agriculture. Interestingly, the owner doesn’t view his company as a social enterprise, “At the end of the day, when you strip everything away, we’re a shoe company… The more they buy, the more money we make. That being said, though, we do it fairly and properly…. In my opinion, that shouldn’t be a social business. It should be every business.”
Adding to this thinking, a recent post on Oxfam examines our expectation that businesses change their ways and focus on the outcome of social good. Oxfam argues that we need to flip this thinking on its head- and emphasize business benefits first, and social change second. They recently tweeted: “If we want business leaders to change business, we need to stop talking about equality and show sustainable profits.”
So, social enterprise is changing in its application and scope. And as Toronto continues to act as a creative hub, it will be interesting to see what direction entrepreneurs take, whether motivated by business, social innovation, or both.