Perspectives

Social enterprises are changing how the UK does business

Social enterprises are changing how the UK does business. 

A decade ago, people and procurement managers – perhaps understandably – thought that buying from a social enterprise meant accepting an inferior product. Sure, you got a warm glow of doing the right thing – but it came at a cost.

The reality couldn’t be more different. The sector has been professionalising fast, filling with entrepreneurs creating profitable and effective business models that direct profits to social or environmental purpose. 

To be successful at what they do, these organisations are acutely aware their product or service must be comparable or better than their competitors. 

At the same time, companies are increasingly conscious of the need to act as responsible businesses. Challenging performance indicators around social impact are part of that – and the social enterprise sector has stepped up, providing a broad range of products and services at competitive prices. 

The end result has been a transformation in the quality on offer. Buying from social enterprises now means that you can buy the right product at the right price while also delivering crucial social benefits. 

If that sounds like incredible progress, imagine what could be done with a billion pounds of social spending? It would revolutionise the sector and supply chains, creating a new class of social enterprise organisations that can deliver at scale while continuing to deliver benefits back to the communities they work in. 

Social Enterprise UK aims to do just that, driving more than £1 billion of that corporate spending through social enterprise organisations with their ‘Buy Social Corporate Challenge’. 

Mace signed up earlier this year and we’re very proud to be redirecting some of our spend with these great suppliers. 

The reality is that the SEUK targets are ambitious. In a sector like construction, redirecting vast swathes of procurement spending into social enterprises is a challenge. Our main materials procurement is focussed on technically complex construction goods, like cladding panels and concrete. 

At the moment, for many of those products there just isn’t a social alternative. 

As a result we have started small, identifying the easy targets where suppliers can easily be switched over to social enterprise organisations. This means things like PPE and signage providers, event venue hire, food and beverage suppliers, catering and cleaning services. 

One example is Fruitful Office. Mace Interiors, Mace’s fit-out business, works with Fruitful Office to provide fresh fruit to employees across our construction project sites. 

Alongside improving  the wellbeing of people through providing the fruit in the first place, Fruitful Office ensuring that the money spent on the service went back into encouraging sustainable fruit farming in Africa. 

Our people were enthused by the benefits provided by the social enterprise, and Mace’s involvement and investment meant that the organisation is able grow and build their customer base even further. 

However, our ambitions go beyond fruit baskets.

We see no reason why we can’t procure more complex and challenging services from social enterprises. At the moment we’re investigating a number of longer term procurement projects around architects, waste management and others.  

As we work to make that a reality, we are really pleased that the feedback on the suppliers we have identified for our projects and offices has been fantastic. 

Not only does the profit generated by that spend get directed back for social purposes, it helps to drive team engagement and – where organisations are local – helps to build a real and tangible connection between our construction projects and the communities they work in. 

For us, the business case is clear – buying social just makes good sense. 

In conversation today

Isabel McAllister

Isabel McAllister Director of Sustainability

More about Isabel McAllister