Dan Gregory - - Director of International and Sustainable Development, Social Enterprise UK

By Dan Gregory – Director of International and Sustainable Development at Social Enterprise UK

There are thousands of social and green enterprises leading the way in tackling the climate emergency. In this piece, Dan Gregory explores how social enterprises are uniquely positioned to protect our planet and challenges the myths around scaling that are often levelled at the sector through looking at how green social enterprises are open sourcing ideas, recycling and sharing knowledge and replicating. Why have one big thing when you can have thousands of small things?

Sometimes at Social Enterprise UK we say that ‘social enterprise’ is somewhat lazy shorthand for ‘social and green enterprise’. We know that all our members are driven by a wider interest than profit, be that social or environmental. Yet we also acknowledge that while social justice and environmental sustainability can go hand in hand, many social enterprises do fight rather more for the former and somewhat less for the latter.

But while many social enterprises are still focused on a double and not yet a triple bottom line – more people than planet – they are nevertheless uniquely positioned to play a leading role in the fight against climate change. The potential in governance and ownership models driven by something other than profit – offers the flexibility and opportunity to demonstrate how business can address the biggest challenge we face.

These social-but-not-yet-green enterprises can follow the inspiration of those which do have an environmental mission – focused on conservation, climate change or ecological breakdown. Thousands of these social-and-green enterprises are already leading the fight against climate change, across the UK, too often unheralded. They include:

  • a nationwide network of around 40 wood recycling social enterprises – modelled on the multi-award-winning Brighton & Hove Wood Recycling Project. These businesses save resources by rescuing and re-using waste timber that would otherwise be landfilled, as well as creating sustainable jobs, training and volunteering opportunities, especially those who might find it difficult to get into or back to employment;
  • over 100 bike recycling workshops and businesses – taking in second hand or donated bikes, refurbishing and maintaining, and selling affordable green transport or shipping bikes to poorer parts of the world;
  • 100s of furniture recycling enterprises – avoiding wate and landfill, reducing carbon emissions and giving low-income households access to affordable goods;
  • a number of IT and electronics recycling schemes and social enterprises – which recycle, refurbish, and resell electronic waste to create jobs for people who would otherwise struggle to enter the workforce.
  • dozens of material recycling scrapstores – collecting items that would otherwise be thrown away and uses them for art and craft projects, usually with children, schools, playgroups, holiday clubs, and other community organisations;
  • over 10,000 clothes, household items and games recycling charity shops – in every town in the UK;
  • a new wave of emerging food waste social enterprises – minimising and using waste food from shops and restaurants; and
  • over 100 repair cafes in the UK – meeting places with tools and materials to help people repair furniture, appliances, toys and more.

Community Wood Recycling

Together, we estimate these recycling businesses may be worth around a billion pounds per year with profits of over £300 million per year. They deliver a range of environmental benefits, including millions of tonnes of carbon savings and avoiding hundreds of thousands of tonnes of landfill.

There’s also something else going on here. For many years, the social enterprise ecosystem, policymakers and social investors have all helped peddle a certain narrative – or even imperative – about scaling. For social enterprise to be seen to succeed, runs the logic, it needs to show it can scale. Where are the social enterprise unicorns, those start-ups which explode onto the scene and make billions? Where are the massive success stories?

These questions have echoed around the social enterprise community over the last two decades, somewhat bizarrely, given the actual existence of many large scale social enterprises across the UK. These range from Welsh Water to the Nationwide Building Society, from dozens of NHS spin-outs to multi-million pound leisure trusts and housing associations from the Co-operative Group to the YHA and from The Shaw Trust to the National Trust. Yet somehow the question mark over social enterprise’s capacity to scale persists. This is in part due to the social investment community and the financial imperatives which drive investors, seeking the growth and scale which can deliver financial returns.

Yet when it comes to the green social enterprises identified above, we can see scaling in impact without scaling of individual businesses – and without much investment. This has been possible, simply through replicating models that work. In the time since the emergence of the social investment industry over ten years ago, thousands of new social enterprises have quietly sprung up across the country, inspired by others, copying business models, sharing experience in the spirit of open source, or replicating with the permission and support of the pioneers.  These are green social enterprises replicating to fight climate change. Not one big thing but thousands of small things.

Social Enterprise UK aims to support those in our membership who have pioneered and adopted these models. So do others – the likes of the National Community Wood Recycling Project, the Reuse Network, ReusefulUK and the Charity Retail Association, WRAP, and more. But we also want to connect these green social enterprise to our social enterprise members who are not quite so green yet. We have begun scoping a programme to facilitate understanding of and support for ‘green replication’ social enterprises, to facilitate peer learning and wider awareness raising. If your social enterprise is part of the recycling, repurposing and replication community and you would like to be part of this work, please get in touch with Emily Darko – Emily.darko@socialenterprise.org.uk