What is a social enterprise and how are they helping to improve our world?
by Elizabeth Embry, MPH, MBA
A social enterprise is an organization that applies business strategies to make a positive difference for society. Rather than striving purely for economic profit, social enterprises examine their success through what is known as the “triple bottom line.” This means that the organization looks at the impact that it is making in terms of social change, environmental sustainability, and economic income. Through the creation of a cause-driven business, social entrepreneurs strive to address social issues and serve the common good. Unlike a charity or not-for-profit organization, social enterprises have a financial structure that allows them to achieve their social mission without the limitations of philanthropic funding or donor giving. Thus, through a sustainable revenue source, these organizations prioritize their work in addressing community needs and environmental issues rather than chasing grants and fundraising.
The triple bottom line is divided into three core areas where a social enterprise can measure their success. Often referred to as the 3Ps of social entrepreneurship: People, Planet, Profit, these areas examine the impact of the organization on improving social equity, environmental sustainability, and economic income. The social equity component can be considered in many different aspects such as human resourcing practices of the organization, community development, and addressing specific social needs or issues. Hiring and training employees from within the community creates job opportunities, especially when the new employees come from a minority or marginalized community. Further, if the new employees are from a population impacted by the issue that the organization seeks to address, they are able to provide insights and meaningful additions to the venture’s work. Fair trade practices are also a part of social equity as it ensures that all people who contribute to the venture’s work are paid a fair wage.
Finally, many social enterprises are focused on addressing a social issue or concern as their primary mission or goal. Environmental sustainability focuses on the impact of the organization on the environment, as well as ways that the venture can address environmental concerns. Every material, manufacturing, and transportation process used in the business has the potential to create harmful waste and emissions. The carbon footprint of the entire supply chain should be minimized to eliminate the environmental harm caused by the organization. This includes using recycled and recyclable materials, sourcing materials locally, utilizing renewable energy sources, and minimizing packaging and transportation. Additionally, social enterprises may take on an environmental cause as the focus of their work. Finally, the economic sustainability of a social enterprise is important as it ensures that the organization can maximize it’s impact through having a strong source of funding. As such, generating a profit to maximize shareholder wealth is not the goal, instead social ventures ensure they have enough of an operating margin to provide effective and efficient work. Additionally, many social ventures utilize a portion of their profits to give back to the social issue or cause they are seeking to address.
Coralee is an excellent model for how a social enterprise can meet a customer’s need and address a social issue. Coralee’s mission is focused on eliminating harmful waste from the oceans and regenerating the coral reefs. This environmental goal is carried out through utilizing recycled materials in the creation of the swimsuits, thus removing harmful plastics and waste from the oceans. The swimsuits are a substitute for existing suits on the market which are made out of nylon, an incredibly harmful product for the environment. Additionally, for every swimsuit purchased, a portion of the profit goes to the planting of new coral. Coralee is dedicated to ensuring that all employees involved in the product creation process are paid a fair and livable wage. Additionally, Coralee prioritizes contracting with women-owned and operating businesses. Finally, the pricing of each Coralee swimsuit meets the operational cost of the materials, manufacturing and labor, and the additional profit is used in the purchasing and planting of new coral in the reefs. Coralee is not only working to transform the fashion industry’s practices by using recycled materials and fair labor, but also actively improving the world’s oceans and marine ecosystems through it’s work producing beautiful swimwear!
Elizabeth (Beth) Embry is a PhD Candidate at the University of Colorado, Leeds School of Business. Her research and writing focused on entrepreneurial solutions to address public health and environmental sustainability issues.