Social enterprises influence sustainability across industries in three ways. Bas van Abel, Wineke Haagsma and Stefan Panhuijsen will use various case studies to illustrate how.

Social Enterprises are Influencing Sustainability

Tony’s Chocolonely started as a small social enterprise that sources cacao to ensure farmers a ‘living wage’. Today it has expanded to a fast-growing international company, whose sourcing principles have been followed by the largest Dutch supermarket chain.

Could other social enterprises change entire industries? We’d argue yes.

The global economy needs to undergo a broad and far-reaching sustainability transition. Sustainability is necessary to overcome the social and environmental challenges mankind is facing. The Paris Agreements and the SDGs provide a roadmap for the journey towards sustainability – and the business community is already making moves in the right direction.

We see large, socially-engaged corporations pledging resources to focus on diversity and inclusion and becoming net zero. We see impact-oriented startups focusing on social or environmental solutions. The urgency and magnitude of global issues such as climate change, inequality, and poverty demand rapid acceleration.

We argue that social enterprises similarly play a vital role. These businesses have specific social objectives that go hand in hand with making profit as a company.

Social enterprises will usually focus on one key social cause, such as international poverty, employment for disadvantaged groups or climate change. Their values are built into how they work as a company and are intrinsic parts of their branding and marketing. Impact, in one form or another, is part of their DNA.

Yet because most social enterprises are relatively small, they are sometimes swept aside as well-intentioned but ineffective. Research of Social Enterprise NL, based on academic literature and case studies from the field, claims the opposite is true.

Their activities often inspire or even compel widespread change. In fact, the Social Enterprise Monitor 2020 showed that 96% of Dutch social enterprises aim to actively influence other organizations to act more sustainably.

Social enterprises influence sustainability in three ways:

  • Possible: showing that it is viable to do business more sustainably, providing inspiration for others and offering up new models that can be copied.
  • Desirable: building the appeal of sustainable business models for consumers, employees and investors.
  • Acceptable: changing the parameters of what is generally considered acceptable or not where it comes to sustainability and inclusiveness.

Within these three avenues, there are more influencing activities discussed in the full report from Social Enterprise NL. There is great potential for social entrepreneurs to go further with their social action and have weighty impacts on industries and people.

In collaboration with the World Economic Forum’s COVID Response Alliance for Social Entrepreneurship, our hope is to take this agenda to a global level and join forces to push for a higher bar for corporate value creation.

Three Examples of where social enterprises have big impact

Agreeing upon responsible principles within an industry can have far-reaching consequences. For example, by creating industry covenants that go beyond what any one company or enterprise can achieve. Here are 3 examples where this approach has worked:

1. Tony’s Chocolonely

The example of Tony’s Chocolonely shows how the company actively encourages other chocolate companies to adopt their methods through Tony’s Open Chain platform.

This is an open source platform that collects all relevant information that companies can use to ensure their supply chains are 100% free of slavery. It also enables cocoa farmers to earn a livable income. This is achieved by increasing traceability in the supply chain, based on Tony’s own “Five Sourcing Principles” model.

With chocolate brand Delicata, supermarket chain Albert Heijn was the first to join Tony’s Open Chain. By cooperating with Tony’s Chocolonely, they contribute to a positive development of the sector.

2. Fairphone

Another example is Fairphone, the ethical smartphone producer. It has started the Fair Cobalt Alliance that brings together industry players to improve the conditions in which cobalt is extracted in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The Alliance aims to “provide an example and proven methodology that others can follow, leading to wider industry acceptance and integration of responsible ASM cobalt in supply chains.”

3. Closing the Loop

A third example is Closing the Loop, a social enterprise which collects and recycles electronic waste in countries that lack waste recycling infrastructure. By offering a B2B solution called waste-compensation, it not only helps companies engage in waste-free procurement of electronics, but also puts sustainability and circularity on the map of the tech world.

Closing the Loop has gone from strength to strength in sharpening their customer strategy, with support from PwC and Strategy (part of the PwC network). It is set to continue to make waves in the world of e-waste highlighting a critical role for large corporations to strengthen the influencing capacity of a social enterprise.

Next steps

Social enterprises certainly act as influential drivers for the sustainability transition. Yet other individuals and businesses should also consider playing their part and become recognized as contributors to a better world.

The reach of many social enterprises is often limited by their lack of resources. Corporations should therefore look for more opportunities for collaboration and partnerships. For example, collaboration can happen through platforms like the Response Alliance for Social Entrepreneurs or the PACE platform for circular change.

Impact investors should dedicate funds to strengthen influencing capacity. With more widespread support, this influence could expand even further beyond what we see now.

We all have our own part to play in creating the world we’d like to see. However, it’s clear that even small spheres of influence can have momentous impacts with the right actions.

Resources and Further Reading:

This article was originally published on World Economic Forum under Creative Commons Licence.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Vision of Humanity.


Bas van Abel, Wineke Haagsma & Stefan Panhuijsen

World Economic Forum

World Economic Forum

This article was originally published by World Economic Forum, an international organisation for public-private cooperation. The Forum engages the foremost political, business, cultural and other leaders of society to shape global, regional and industry agendas.