During the Social Enterprise World Forum in Ethiopia, I heard an analogy that we are standing in the middle of a burning triangle – on one side there is the environment: global warming and our ever pending Tipping Point; on the second side: growing inequality. Lastly, on the third side, we are seeing extremism in political leaders that will only steer us to disaster - the likes the world saw just before World War Two.
Passion for politics
Having grown up in Ireland, a country with a history of colonisation and political upheaval, I learned from an early age the skills of debating daily current affairs. Reading widely, watching documentaries, listening to podcasts and participating in controversial political discourse have led friends to ask about whether I have an interest in joining a political party. Personally, I have not considered a career in politics, because I learned from history books and in reality the power of towing the party line. However, individually I can see plenty of lines that I’m not keen to tow, and I am feisty enough to speak my mind.
But, when it comes to being in business, you can be feisty and speak your mind, and hopefully you will have an audience that likes what you say and purchases what you sell.
Finding my fit
I needed to find a path that would allow me to continue my passion for politics - more accurately, my passion for influencing policy reform that supports the environment, people and the economy – and allowed me to live by my values and not compromise on my beliefs.
Business activism is where I found my purpose and my happy place!
Rarely do you see the words business and activism together. But, in a sense, this is what a social enterprise is. For me, business activism is about creating an income model that’s motivated by social, political and environmental reform.
Social enterprise as business activism is a reaction to systems that are simply not working. Our politicians have failed to solve real problems collaboratively, and our society cannot wait. Businesses have been touted as a faster solution to the problem, but it won’t be met by those who are only concerned about the financial bottom line.
Business activism – A different model for business, government and people.
Business activism is not about having a dig at corporates, politicians or business leaders, but by working alongside these people in power to create lasting and meaningful change.
A company in San Francisco, found a way to “operate in the places where activism and capitalism intersect. We are pro-business, pro-government and pro-people." It’s an exciting space where entrepreneurs, business leaders, politicians and consumers can collaborate to solve issues.
Done well, business activism can have a profound impact on the way we do business by:
- Shaping the products and services on offer which influences consumer behaviour too.
- Guiding business practices, including supplier relationships and how and where products are manufactured.
- Changing the way businesses manage and care for their people.
- Impacting how a business engages with its community and country, including their environmental and societal impact.
But social enterprises exist in the real world and, of course, money is still a huge concern. Social enterprises need funds to thrive and make a difference.
We see a whole new wave of ethical investment opportunities open up for those activists who no longer want to contribute in any way to global warming, human rights abuses, and companies that profit off gambling, tobacco, weapons and mining – so-called “sin stocks”.
With platforms like KiwiSaver, ethical investing is starting to transition from niche to mainstream. No longer satisfied with fund managers who just track the market, more and more investors are scrutinizing where their money is going. KiwiSaver, as an example, is by no means a perfect model, but at least it’s sparking conversation and change - people are becoming more proactive and louder about ethical investment.
Businesses and investment fund managers beware – if you want to keep your market share and your relevance, you need to listen to what your clients care about –it’s not all about achieving the highest return and to hell with the negative social, environmental or political impact.
This new wave of ethical investing should, in turn, challenge businesses to reform their practices. If shares in their organization are no longer attractive, then they should consider and act to make changes that respond to today’s triangle of concerns: people, environment and politics.
Finding our social enterprise: The Re-Creators
I am an environmentalist and believer in human rights. To practically play this out as a business activist, I chose quirky upcycling. Upcycling as an art form, business model and form of activism clearly shows, in fun and useful ways, how we can all be more sustainable.
Sustainability is a clear thread of activism that runs through our workshops and in our new and future designs – of which I hope there’ll be many! For us, that means choosing, producing and consuming products that are ethically, sustainably and locally made. By building a business model and income stream around this, The Re-Creators can provide hope for our community and a viability for makerspaces. It’s a practical and enjoyable solution to today’s issues (although for something that’s common sense to me, it was harder to get off the ground than I thought).
I never imagined or wanted to work in toy manufacturing, or sales, really. But while developing The Re-Creators DIY Toy Kits, I saw a reasonable pathway to help make the changes that are needed.
Like other social enterprises, the mission for The Re-Creators is great; I will do all the small tasks required to make the bigger picture a possibility.
And I’m grateful I have a team of people willing to do the same thing.
A new path: showing the way through social enterprise
New ways of doing business needs to be performed by pushing back on conventional ways of doing things. It’s clear that we will not find solutions to today’s problems by repeating and doing things that we always did in the past.
Like Einstein once said: “If you always do what you always did, you will always get what you always got.”
New business leaders need to show the way through social enterprise. Waiting and providing time-consuming solutions is not an option – we need speedy solutions to climate change.
Social enterprise is about developing, sustaining and encouraging fair business practice that supports the economy, its employees and delivers to its consumers. It is one solution to today’s environmental, societal and political climate.
To solve complex problems, we need systemic change. We need to engage with businesses and politicians to find practical, innovative and solution-led ways to act and improve our future, not just talk.
When a social enterprise works, it creates a thoughtful and practical blueprint of how businesses, politicians and consumers can come together to tackle the burning triangle of our day: environmental degradation, inequality and political extremism.Consumers, politicians, businesses and entrepreneurs: Now is the time for change.