The old saying goes “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. That’s what big business will have you believe too. But just consider this for a moment – Amazon made $11.2 billion in 2018 but paid no federal taxes – absolute zilch, nada! Now, tell me is this good business? How is it sustainable for any economy?
The question we all need to be asking is – who does free market capitalism help? Focusing on maximising profits for the shareholders without caring for the environment or the people simply doesn’t cut the mustard any more. Yes, a business, by its very definition, can only be sustainable when it makes a profit. But businesses have a huge role to play in the shaping of our societies too. Putting societal change, societal progress right at the heart of a business’s mission makes so much more sense.
There are other, more crucial, factors at play too. Climate change is an existential threat that humanity faces right now. Free enterprise capitalism has exploited the natural resources with abandon, again with the sole aim of maximising profits, and with devastating effects. We only have to look at the destruction of the Amazonian and Indonesian rainforests. It doesn’t even stop there. No forests mean homeless wild animals, some on the verge of extinction. Not to mention the rise in carbon emissions!
It’s not all doom & gloom though. There are some rays of hope. Consumers are beginning to question the role of big multi-billion corporations in the destruction of our planet. Traditional business models have had to make some changes though it can be argued that they can do even more. People are looking for more viable and sustainable alternatives. The latest positive intervention came when the Financial Times, no less, launched its “New Agenda” campaign earlier this year, questioning the capitalist status quo.
However, there has been a movement which has existed for far longer. Social Enterprise has challenged the existing business narrative with one of compassion & caring for the people and the planet. The mantra of “profit with a purpose” is nothing new to the Social Enterprise posse. This is one of our guiding principles. That is exactly why Social Enterprise leads the way in businesses that are greener, sustainable, more innovative and more inclusive. They are at the forefront of tackling social and environmental issues. Not only that, they plough back their profits into the causes they work for.
There is growing respect and recognition of social enterprises among the consumer population too – take it from someone who interacts with them regularly. Consumers are more woke to the issues around supply chains, exploitation, fair wages and environmental degradation. They can see what social enterprises can do and are ready to jump ship – perhaps not wholesale just yet but this is definitely not a fringe movement any more.
Let’s also not forget that at least some of the uncertainty around Brexit has now been laid to rest. I still do not believe it will be in our economic, social or environmental interests but here we are. We need to make the best of what we have – lemons, lemonade etc. It might be quite difficult to see positives right now if you don’t agree with the recent election result but I suspect there might be some opportunities to grow and engage more. As Peter Holbrook, CEO of SEUK suggests it might require some “unusual alliances” to be able to work with the new administration.
So, going back to the original question of “is it time to fix it?” I think the answer is a resounding “yes”. Just like the Great Reform Act of 1832 became a watershed moment in UK history paving the way for modern democracy, the Social Enterprise movement is seemingly at that stage. Or to put it into a more modern context, just like changing our phones or computers with more modern versions, we need to “upgrade” our economy to be able to rebalance it, to bring about the societal change that we all so desperately need.
Arshad Khalid, FRSA
Founder of Ethiqana (@ethiqana)