Social enterprises in private sector supply chains — is this the new ‘greenwash’?

There is an interesting debate on the Guardian Social Enterprise Network blog about the rights and wrongs of social enterprises operating as part of private sector supply chains. The discussion is a response to a post by Michael Solomon of Profit Through Ethics. The discussion really revolves around corporate supply chains rather than, say, SME supply chains.

Interestingly, neither the original post nor the comments consider the practicalities of social enterprises supplying private sector businesses — what might be required to enable SEs to enter such supply chains, whether quality and other thresholds can be met, and whether SEs are treated fairly once in that supply chain. Those at the very least are practical issues that could provide a framework for determining whether trade is being conducted fairly.

No, what the discussion focuses on are typically overblown claims for social enterprises’ ability to enter private sector supply chains and — “by contagion” — change corporate practices, the capitalist business model, and the world.

This kind of twaddle infuriates me. Solomon believes that it will only take a “modest increase in people’s expectations” (and I can’t quite tell whether he means consumers or business leaders or both) to prompt a complete re-evaluation of the capitalist economic model and a massive shift in favour of transparency, honesty and responsibility. This he claims will create “a new normal” in which corporations will willingly admit which of their trading practices “damage society, which damage the environment and how they mean to instigate change”.

There is nothing quite like ignoring inconvenient facts when peddling one’s favourite position on whatever it might be — we all do it to some degree — but the naivety, partiality and disingenuousness on display here is breathtaking.

There is a genuine debate to be had about whether social enterprises should chase customers whose business practices damage society or are unfair or exploitative towards their own workforces. Co-ops, for example, have engaged in these debates for decades. Back in the mid-1980s as a member of a book distribution co-op I remember endless discussions about whether we should supply mainstream bookshops that didn’t share our values, or were anti-trade union, or whose employment practices stank.

Did we supply them? You bet. Their orders were larger than many of the small, independent and alternative booksellers that made up a good part of our customer base. They paid reasonably promptly (sometimes). And they sold titles quickly because — unlike most of our poorer customers — they were in fantastic locations and had tens of thousands of customers passing through their doors every week. And, perhaps most importantly, they represented a wider audience and a bigger market for some of the more marginal campaigning and political literature we sold — which, by and large, we recognised would be more influential the wider its readership.

But we recognised this for the trade-off and compromise it was.

We certainly didn’t for one moment think that the fundamental practices of a corporate bookselling giant were going to change because every couple of months they bought some weird books from a tiny co-op.

We may  have been a bunch of half-crazed hippies, disaffected marxists, radical separatist feminists, ex-Free Press pioneers and fringe theatre activists  but in comparison with some of the tosh that passes for informed discussion in the social enterprise movement today our debates were exemplary in their realpolitik and commonsense.

Of course those days are gone, and many will say thank God they are. But in the current economic, political and social climate we urgently need a social enterprise movement that is as conversant with political reality as it is its own values…


  1. Charles Rapson Reply

    Well said!


    Clearly strong opinions here Alun even for you- great blog . Would certainly totally endorse your view that from a practical viepoint there are times when we all have to deal with people and organisations that we would prefer not to engage with for ethical reasons- however needs must…. and in the current economic climate the needs are even greater.

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