Social enterprise – entrepreneurship that combines business nous with ethical aims – is on the rise. But is it anything more than a placebo effect that makes consumers momentarily feel good? Surely this marked acceleration of businesses driven by purpose as well as profit is excellent news?
For many critics of the rise of social enterprise, the answer is no. They are concerned we are getting a trend confused with a movement for change, particularly when it comes to retail solutions. They point out that at the customer end, the feel good factor only lasts as long as your recent purchase, and that these one-off acts of consumerism obscure the need for collaborative efforts to solve problems. This critique has become more pronounced with the entry of ‘big money’ into social enterprise. Some have gone so far as to call impact investment funds a “neoliberal takeover” of the sector.
There is also an argument to be made that social enterprises are plugging gaps that the government should, or at least has traditionally, filled. This leads to what some see as the perverse outcome of people profiting from poverty, particularly with the ‘buy-one-give-one’ model, which is a very clear have and have not scenario. With this sort of power differential at play, the question must be begged: is social enterprise solving problems, or is it reinforcing the dynamics that cause issues in the first place?