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Understand your own impact and start to take action – this was the main message of the third session at Social Enterprise Futures focused on the climate emergency.

We were joined by a stellar panel of social enterprise leaders who discussed their own journeys of embedding environmental impact in their operations and who shared tips on how other social enterprises can do the same.

Charlotte Harrington Co-CEO at Belu Water chaired the discussion which included founder and CEO of social enterprises Change Please and Serious Tissues, Cemal Ezel; Elaine Brown CEO at Edinburgh and Danyal Sattar CEO at Big Issue Invest.

Serious Tissues for Serious Issues

Change Please are probably one of the UK’s best known social enterprises, tackling homelessness through the sale of coffee. Whilst their social mission is obvious, what people may not realise about them is their commitment to sustainability and tackling waste. Cemal spoke about how Change Please undertook an environmental audit which looked across the organisation’s operations, resulting in systems being put in place which has resulted in the whole business being carbon neutral and plastic free.

Inspired to do more to protect the environment Cemal has also launched Serious Tissues – a social enterprise set up to tackle the serious issue that a fifth of all deforestation is down to toilet paper. Serious Tissues sells the UK’s first carbon neutral toilet paper – 100% recycled, no plastic with a tree being planted for each roll bought. The reception to Serious Tissues has been phenomenal and it has tapped into a real gap in the market with supermarkets and large retailers actively contacting the social enterprise.  Cemal has also now set up another social enterprise – Serious Soaps, which is not just carbon neutral but carbon negative.

Working in partnership to increase positive environmental impact

“It makes business sense to be environmental and social. Social enterprises are leading the charge and bringing the corporate world along” – Elaine Brown

Edinburgh Remakery are all about repair and re-use, selling and donating refurbished laptops using a circular economy business model. CEO Elaine Brown showed us how social enterprises, like hers, are inspiring other organisations to increase their own positive environmental impact.

She talked about how COVID saw them pivot to a focus on e-waste, working with other businesses to source old equipment, re-purpose them and give them to people facing digital poverty. Partnering with organisations in the private sector has helped the social enterprise grow its size and income and it is now moving to bigger premises at the Ocean Terminal in Leith – a major shopping centre. They are “bringing social enterprise repair and re-use into the mainstream” and are now working with over 80 businesses in Edinburgh who use their IT disposal services.

Cemal was also keen to stress the importance of partnership highlighting that environmental considerations are becoming increasingly important for buyers. The added impact social enterprises can bring is being noticed, as he put it when buying from social enterprises businesses are “purchasing a product they’re getting anyway but doing good at the same time”.

Investing in a sustainable future

“We’re in a rowing boat but we’re rowing against the tide. We need to change the tide”  – Danyal Sattar

CEO of Big Issue Invest, Danyal Sattar opened his comments by praising the efforts of social enterprises and wider civil society in bringing the climate emergency to the forefront of public debate. He talked about how investing in a sustainable future has been a key consideration of social investors citing examples such as Triodos Bank’s funding of renewable energy schemes before it became mainstream and how City Bridge Trust was carrying out environmental audits in 1995.

Looking to the future he said that environmental sustainability should be seen as a “basic hygiene factor for running our organisations”. When it comes to mainstream investment there has been a shift with 40% of investments being made with an ESG focus (environment, social and governance). This still leaves “60% going the other way” with Danyal saying that we need to change the tide of mainstream investment.

How to start with looking at environmental impact?

“Start now there’s no better time to start” – Danyal Sattar

SEUK’s own research has shown that social enterprises are increasing looking to take active steps to tackle the climate emergency but where do you start?

Cemal said that from his experiences it’s all about auditing your business – not every business can be totally carbon neutral but every business should do what it can. Social enterprises should look across their operations from their supply chains and expenditure to how they get products to clients. He worked with an external consultant who offered advice on what to improve on and what machinery to invest in.

Danyal stressed that it’s never too late to look at and deal with your environmental impact, indeed there’s been no better time. Green energy is accessible and on the rise, we know where CO2 is coming from and we know how to get rid of it. He also stressed the importance of carrying out an environmental audit to take a “careful, detailed look at the business” This can reveal things you did not think about, citing the example of Walmart who carried out an audit expecting their primary source of emissions to come from their trucks and haulage operations. The main source turned out to come from leaky refrigerators.

Consumers and businesses increasingly care, they just need to know you’re there

“It’s not about consumers having the want it’s about telling them what we are doing” – Cemal Ezel

People increasingly care about the planet but how do we encourage people to take this concern and translate it into supporting social enterprises? Cemal stressed the importance of marketing – stating that consumers don’t need to be educated, they just need to know what exists.

Elaine’s experiences at Edinburgh Remakery are all about encouraging people that buying social is the way to go, centering the importance of partnerships and meeting businesses where they are at when it comes to selling your services e.g. that if a business is concerned solely with the bottom line making the case that recycling old IT actually makes business sense.

All panellists believed that we can build a fairer and more sustainable world through our actions – both as individuals and by taking meaningful steps to improve our environmental impact. As Danyal put it, after he may have become the first speaker in history to buy social enterprise toilet roll live at an event, we can “live the world we want to make happen.”