As a recent science graduate, what to do with the rest of my life quite literally keeps me up at night. The seemingly endless amount of time to think, whilst mostly confined to the four walls of my house during lockdown, has left me with a whole heap of unanswered questions about the future.
Is a world without poverty possible? How do we begin to close the huge gap in global health? Can we reverse enough of the environmental damage that has already occurred to make a difference? Will the world be a place in which I want to raise kids, or will we reach a point where having children becomes unethical because the state of the world is so dismal? Are homophobia and racism ever going to be truly obsolete? Can one person make a difference?
That brief monologue may help you appreciate why some nights I struggle to sleep. On top of these burdening world issues, more personal matters concerning a successful and worthwhile career and the general uncertainties of life also plague me. And, as a young adult with little concrete direction in my life after education, I know that I am not alone with these feelings. It can be hard to find meaning in such a rapidly changing world. And, as much as it is important to do something meaningful, I am also of the opinion that it is okay to want to provide a comfortable life for yourself and any family that you might have aspirations of starting. I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but we are not all going to be able to devote hundreds of millions of dollars to charitable causes off the back of multi-billion dollar technology companies like Bill and Melinda Gates. They are wonderful people with even more wonderful projects, but the majority of us should probably be aiming a bit lower. That is not to say don't reach for the stars.. But just to have realistic expectations.
'No single privileged viewpoint can change the world.'
First things first, this article should not be taken in a way it is not meant. No single privileged viewpoint can change the world. The title is meant as a light-hearted way to explore the idea that it is okay to have aspirations to be economically viable and still make a valuable contribution to changing the status quo for the better. I have learned a lot myself in the researching and writing of this article, so the narrative is intended as an open questioning discussion, and not as one answer to one closed question.
Money is steadily moving down the list of most important criteria for us millennials, with our priorities shifting to more fulfilling and worthwhile work. That does not mean, however, that money doesn’t matter to us. With student debts, the high cost of living, and our own economic aspirations, a pay cheque is still important. The major difference is that our generation is hyper-aware of the need to help achieve social and environmental objectives that can drive a positive change. Can we come up with more innovative approaches to alleviating global issues concerning social and environmental challenges? Is it possible to channel our passion and creativity to find real contextual change?
Enter the term: ‘social entrepreneur’.
Like a classic entrepreneur, a social entrepreneur delivers a product or service that occupies some kind of niche in the market. The difference is that it is intended to address a fundamental societal or environmental issue. So, it is someone with an innovative idea that can benefit society, but the project will sustain itself financially. Income is generated by the appeal of the outcome, which in turn supports the project. It sits outside of the accepted dichotomy of 'non-profit' and 'for-profit' organisations; it does not rely solely on charitable donations, but is using the profits it generates to solve a social or environmental obstacle, rather than purely for capital gain. Social and environmental issues have largely been caused by the huge competition that a capitalist market generates. There needs to be a willingness to sacrifice a margin on pay cheques, that can go a long way elsewhere.
'The good news is that Forbes found that models of social innovation are not "small, isolated islands of success in the rough seas of overwhelming global problems" but in fact resemble a collective power that cannot be ignored or marginalised.'
Academic research and writing that raises awareness can only make so much of a dent in the issues. Awareness is important, but lasting change demands action. And unfortunately, the reality is that change requires money. Nothing is free, and for a project or business to be sustainable - socially entrepreneurial or not - it must support itself. Social good must be incorporated into a business plan with financially viable bottom lines. The good news is that Forbes found that models of social innovation are not "small, isolated islands of success in the rough seas of overwhelming global problems" but in fact resemble a collective power that cannot be ignored or marginalised. Not only is this hugely encouraging to read, but shows how doable social entrepreneurship is if you have a passion and an issue to fix.
Take ChangePlease, a London-based coffee company who train people experiencing homelessness to be specialist baristas, whilst paying them the London living wage to enable them to stand on their own two feet. Support for finance, housing and mental well-being is also provided. The communities that provide the coffee beans are also supported; a community in Peru helps victims of domestic abuse, and another in Tanzania supports people injured by landmines. The founder, Cemal Ezel, explains that it is all possible because of the relatively large profit margins on a cup of coffee – the issue is that large high-street chains have not been investing the money into the right places.
On their website, the story of Tom is touching. "ChangePlease means "Life" for me, I wouldn't be here now without them".
ChangePlease has had a hugely positive impact on the lives of over 200 homeless people in London since 2015. What started out as a single coffee cart has now evolved into a city-wide organisation. A small difference in the lifestyle of a large collective of people – as simple as where you buy your coffee – can have wide-reaching benefits.
LUSH, the well-known high-street cosmetics company is a another inspiring example of how profits can be used for good. As a company based on environmental awareness and ethical consumerism, LUSH is an industry leader in how to do business right. Saying no to animal testing, using vegetarian ingredients with little to no preservatives, and buying only organic fruit and vegetables are just some of the reasons the company is a world leader in kind and sustainable products. Innovations like the solid shampoo bar reduce their packaging and plastic waste, with many products able to be bought with no packaging at all. Where packaging is unavoidable, they use recycled materials and offer a recycling scheme which trades empty tubs for free face masks. According to the website, their sales of charity pots generated £1.6 million of profit in the UK last financial year, and £6.3 million globally. Every penny except VAT goes to charity. And, they also donate money to environmental groups through a self-imposed carbon tax on all of their flights.
The owner, Mark Constantine, was labelled a ‘socially conscious capitalist’ by the Finanial Times. He reveals that packaging accounts for approximately two-thirds of the cost of the product. It doesn’t take a genius to deduce that this reduction in cost by not using packaging can lead to better quality products, higher customer satisfaction and a smaller environmental footprint. So actually, doing the environmentally conscious thing can often be profitable according to basic economics, even without the added benefits associated with it. It makes sense.
On the other hand, we have all heard of the footwear brand TOMS. Since 2006, their ‘One for One’ scheme has provided shoes and eyewear to children living in extreme poverty. They use organic and sustainable materials, as well as boxes that are printed in soy ink. On the immediate face of it, this all seems hugely altruistic and beneficial. However, in practice, there are multiple issues surrounding removal of agency and an over-simplification of complex problems. Of course, shoes are undoubtably important. However, other needs of these people may far overshadow their want for shoes on their feet. A new notebook for school, a litre of clean water, or an unaffordable vaccination may have been their preferred way to spend the money that went into the production and distribution of the TOMS shoes, which may be seen as a secondary luxury to people used to going about their daily lives on the soles of their feet.
Unlike ChangePlease who fund life-changing programmes for the homeless based on education and skill enhancement, and LUSH who donate money to charities who are able to use the money in the most productive and sustainable way, TOMS chooses specifically to donate a pair of shoes for every pair bought by a consumer.
It's not that a desire to help people is not a good thing, nor that paying a bit more for a product or a service that contributes to a greater good is wrong. It is that the per dollar benefit of the outcome is not at a maximum. The textbook rule of providing aid or charity is that kindness or good intentions are not enough; it is neither ethical nor productive to impose an interpretation of what is best for a community, but rather to enable people to have the autonomy to make decisions for themselves. It is kind and it is commendable to have a desire to help. It makes people feel good to know that a relatively inexpensive difference to a price tag is offering the chance for you to do your bit for the day. But the hard-hitting truth is that providing environmentally friendly shoes to these children may not necessarily be as life changing as TOMS likes to market to us.
As an article on VOX so aptly puts it:
"We, as Western consumers, are so rich that the price of changing a poor person's life is just a rounding error on our fashionable accessories. Improving a poor child's well-being or clearing a young woman's path to education can be offered as a free gift with purchase, a sort of altruistic version of a McDonald's happy meal toy."
I do not mean to be cynical. A company like TOMS, who is at least trying to make a difference in the world, is leagues apart of corporations who only care about their financial bottom lines and have no little to no regard for the damage they are doing or the problems they create. I have no doubt that TOMS have made a positive difference to impoverished children across the world. The point is that is important to acknowledge the limitations of social entrepreneurship, and ask how it can strive to become synonymous with consistently authentic development. We must determine boundaries for social entrepreneurship in order to prevent its meaning becoming diluted and meaningless. Some projects may be highly commendable, but just simply do not fit the definition of a self-sustaining profit making company who are filling a problematic environmental or social niche.
However ... It appears that you can in fact change the world and still make money. It might be a small change, it might be a big change. It is undeniable that it is increasingly the responsibility of businesses to integrate social and environmental issues in to daily life and wider economies. It could be a technology start-up for the developing world, a provider of educational travel, sustainable urban planning, or a way to revolutionise the hospitality industry. If you can identify your passion, and what strong skills you could bring to an innovative start-up, then it is more than possible to generate money which can keep you economically viable as an individual, whilst also making an important difference to our world. It is imperative that our generation works towards a more inclusive future with fairer economies and a sustainable life.