Creating a human economy: the power of purpose properly certified

Blog post by Gareth Hart, Director of Iridescent Ideas and chair of Plymouth Social Enterprise Network.

We recently attended the  Social Enterprise Mark conference in Birmingham. This annual event brings together people from all over the UK and beyond. The theme was Growth for Good and how certification and standards can help businesses grow, be accountable and transparent.

The event kicked off with a key-note speech by Andrew Brewerton, Principal of Plymouth College of Art. In a thought-provoking talk, Andrew challenged us to come up with a ‘proposition’ for our work and life. PCA is a Gold Standard Social Enterprise Mark holder and delivers a mission of creative learning and social justice. Their ten-point manifesto includes statements such as “Making is as important as reading, writing, science and maths;” “Art is not about life, it is about living” and “The purpose of learning is inseparable from that of living your life.”

This was followed by presentations from several social enterprises about their work: County Print Finishers from Oxford talked about the power of transformation that social enterprises can bring to individuals. Yateley Industries from Hampshire described their fantastic history and recent challenges and York St John University presented how a social enterprise university is making a difference by helping to create a healthy economy.

Day two started with a challenging talk,  ‘Towards a human economy’ from Alex Maitland from Oxfam. Openly describing some of the issues Oxfam is facing at the moment around sexual misconduct and abuse of power, he delivered a presentation full of facts about world inequality and poverty. Statistics that stood out included that 1% of people on earth have bagged 87% of the wealth; $1.3 trillion was paid in dividends in 2017 and that an estimated $7.6 trillion is hidden in offshore tax havens that evade tax. Alex explained Oxfam’s policy towards trying to procure from businesses that stood for ‘profit, purpose and people.’

The next panel session saw Jeremy Nicholls of Social Value International explain how he thought accounting and company law needed to change to help build a fairer economy. We particularly liked the laser like focus Jeremy brought to his proposition about where these changes were needed and how, especially in accountancy, the amendments to regulations were not actually that radical in an industry that is seemingly crying out for transformation.

We were then part of a panel debate on the certification process itself. Joined by colleagues from Sweden and Scotland the panel discussed how accreditation provided rigour and accountability. Paul Devoy, CEO of Investors in People, described their journey from government to an independent social enterprise and how mental heath is a missing component in economic strategy making. Erika Augustinsson from MSI Sweden talked about how social enterprise in Sweden is looking for an accreditation standard to help define and promote the sector.

Our take on this debate was how, if the UK wants to develop a more inclusive, prosperous economy, then economic policy should focus on supporting and developing social enterprises. It is social enterprises that are paying fairly, setting up in disadvantaged areas and applying their work and profits to achieving social missions. These missions are locked in and, unlike standard businesses who claim they have ‘purpose’ and are ‘corporately and socially responsible’, the Social Enterprise Mark and other accreditations can prove this and provide a response to any accusation of greenwashing.

We ended with a challenge – rather than fighting amongst ourselves to prove who is holier than whom, we need to create a movement of socially responsible businesses – co-operatives, community businesses, social enterprises, trading charities and others should combine to create a powerful force for a more human and wellbeing economy.

European Regional Development Fund logo

The Heart of the South West Enhance Social Enterprise Programme is receiving funding from the England European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) as part of the European Structural and Investment Funds Growth Programme 2014-2020.