This week the UK Government is backing the “Buy Social for a Better World” campaign which is spreading the word about how the money we spend can be used to help people and planet.
Ethical consumerism has been one of the biggest trends of recent years, with people seeking out products and services that meet their needs but which also meet their own ethical standards. Buying from social enterprises is one of the ways that all parts of the public sector can show that they “get it”.
Obviously, government buying is different to consumer purchasing. Usually public bodies are buying more complicated goods and services (although not always, a pen is a pen for people and for government!) and this can make it harder to identify where social and environmental considerations come into play. But we also have more capacity than individual consumers, more expertise and greater levels of information. Where there is a will, there is a way.
Our experience and practice has improved over the years. Responsible procurement has been part of procurement law for many years. For example, government has passed the Modern Slavery Act, which has encouraged buyers to get a better understanding of their supply chains.
We have also seen the Social Value Act passed in 2012, which required all public bodies to consider how what they spend can generate additional social and environmental impact. An important programme of work is already well underway to expand the Act’s impact, through which central government will be required to evaluate social value in major procurements (as long as it does not add complexity or cost or restrict markets for organisations like social enterprises). While the expansion programme is targeted at central government departments, it will have an impact in every market in which government procures goods, services and construction, with an estimate £49 billion of expenditure a year in scope, and will unlock more contract opportunities for social enterprises.
Local government is particularly well placed to Buy Social. There is a clear line of sight between what local authorities are buying and the impact on the ground.
34% of social enterprises work at the local or neighbourhood level and over half of social enterprises hire all of their workforce locally. Working with social enterprises, therefore, has direct impact on communities boosting employment and seeing the profits reinvested back at a local level.
Monitoring and identifying the transformative impact of Buying Social is easier for local authorities than it is for bodies working at a national level as the chain between spend and intended outcome is shorter. Outreach is critical, however, as many social enterprises are not aware of how they can become suppliers, which is why I commissioned this guidance for organisations like social enterprises that are considering joining the government supply chain.
There are over 100,000 social enterprises across the UK and they are contributing £60bn to the UK economy. Social enterprises are not just small businesses, with 5,000 social enterprises turning over £5m a year. This means that a whole range of opportunities are available. Buying social is not merely about contracting traditional services from social enterprises in sectors such as leisure or adult social care (although both are important!). The sector is also making goods as well from signage to coffee – social enterprises can provide a growing range of the services and goods that local authorities need.
The main barrier to Buying Social is that of influencing behavioural change. It can often be easier and risk-free to continue doing what we did before and to get stuck into rigid processes which cut down options. There is good work happening around shifting approaches to procurement, but we can all do more to ensure all parts of the public sector can maximise their social and environmental impact.
It is important
to remember that not Buying Social is a choice too. Sometimes there will be
good reasons why we don’t buy from a social enterprise, but every time we
choose not to do so and to buy from a traditional business instead, we can miss
out on fantastic opportunities to create additional social, economic and
I hope that all public bodies will use this week to promote the work that they are doing to encourage people to Buy Social and to highlight where they are partnering with this growing and important sector of our economy. It is important that at a time when we need all consumers to think ethically and responsibly, that the public sector leads by example.
Claire Dove OBE
VCSE Crown Representative