Meet the ethical entrepreneurs solving social issues

With more businesses wanting to be seen as eco-friendly and goodhearted, many have put solving social problems at level pegging with boosting shareholder dividends

Meet the ethical entrepreneurs solving social issues

The UK has been hailed the global hub of social enterprises; one in five UK SMEs are motivated by a social purpose to benefit the world around them. Consumers themselves are becoming increasingly ethically conscious and 39% of UK adults surveyed as part of a publication in June 2014 said they based their buying decisions on the ethical practices of the business in question. 

With 5.2 million businesses in the UK to choose from, consumers are enticed into dealing with those with ethical practices that are implemented across the board – not just social enterprises. As a nation, we are seeing the rise of the social entrepreneur – and we don’t mean in the reply-to-all-tweets sense. Social entrepreneurs set up their businesses to solve social issues. They are game changers that seek to make a difference with their products sold or the projects they reinvest their profits in. Businesses big or small can make a difference to society with simple ethical practices and, for the many implementing them, the practices are normal. 

The businesses featured below are led by social entrepreneurs who seek to make a real positive difference to the world. 

The only way is ethics

Paving the way for social entrepreneurs, Lush is widely considered to be one the of the UK’s most ethical retailers. The brainchild of Mark and Mo Constantine, Lush is renowned for its natural products and extensive list of ethical practices. Its fundamental founding principle is the profound avoidance of animal testing. “We are absolutely vehemently opposed to it. If it meant shutting the business, we’d shut the business before we animal tested,” says Hilary Jones, ethics director at Lush. “We run the most stringent animal testing campaign. As far as is humanly possible we check, we double-check and we audit to make sure nobody in our chain is involved in animal testing. We do believe in this really strongly; it’s what runs through our veins.”

“Our ethics are about us feeling comfortable with the kind of company that we are running,” Jones continues. Lush is constantly evolving its ethical policies in line with the changing needs of its suppliers and customers. When it discovered that by using palm oil it was contributing to the destruction of orangutan habitats, it eliminated palm oil from its products and is now working on a way to use the product without adding to the devastation. Lush would rather use its buying power to persuade suppliers to practice ethically where possible and its SLush charity was launched to support suppliers by creating better working and living environments, funded by 2% of Lush’s product and packing spend. “We don’t just take into account the labour accounts and the working rights, but also the environmental problems,” says Simon Constantine, head of ethical buying at Lush.

“By initiating our own projects and working with people, we tend to be working around permaculture techniques” reveals Constantine. “In Kenya, farmers can grow their own food but they can also use geranium as a crop to intercrop, so in between they can grow geranium which helps to fend off pests, and when the time comes to harvest the geranium, we distil it for essential oil and we can use that essential oil in our products.” Lush prefers to be personally connected with its suppliers and its SLush charity, along with its charity pot product, has helped communities and charities immensely. 

Many consumers have begun to boycott large companies that avoid tax but Lush holds a strict stance on its tax and even taxes its air miles as it believes that the aviation industry should be taxed. Its self-imposed tax is donated to charities campaigning for the aviation change. “Many of us within Lush really strongly feel that your taxes contribute to society and, as a business, you should be contributing to the society that you are trading from. All of us retailers are sitting on high streets that have been built by tax money,” says Jones. “Our main stance is trying to be as open and transparent for customers so they can make their mind up,” Constantine adds. 

Holding up local economies

Cornwall is a county that relies deeply on tourism; holidaymakers flock in their thousands, generating a whopping £1.9bn for the Cornish economy. However, Cornish local communities struggle on when tourism quietens. Emma Douglas, co-founder of Picnic Cornwall, recognised the problem with seasonal trading and opened a deli that celebrates all that Cornwall has to offer, only stocking Cornish produce from Cornish suppliers. 

Celebrating Cornish produce became the sole foundation for Picnic Cornwall, Douglas explains. “Neither of our backgrounds were in food in drink but we’d always loved food and drink festivals. However, we found that once they were done you couldn’t get all of that produce in the same place so we thought there was a bit of a gap in the market and put our business plan and ideas together from there,” reveals Douglas. “We liked the variety that Cornwall has to offer and, whilst there was a deli in Falmouth, there wasn’t a deli that sold particularly Cornish produce and we were keen to support the local economy by not just employing people but by actually buying from Cornish producers and suppliers too.” 

With national chains being its high street competition, Picnic Cornwall’s customers love the Cornish produce and the option to support the local economy whilst consuming tasty treats. Once a month, Picnic holds a ‘Meet the Makers’ event for customers to learn about its product origins. “Because we source locally it does mean that we are able to let our customers meet our producers, which people love,” says Douglas. “It’s something that you wouldn’t get the opportunity to do with a bigger organisation or a national chain. It’s really popular.

Supporting and celebrating Cornwall is the sole mission for Picnic Cornwall. It encourages customers to picnic around Cornwall and its map mural shows how close the beach and local landmarks are. It offers a delivery service and delivers products by foot within a one mile radius. Further afield, it would prefer to use a local taxi firm for delivering to further support the local economy. And its ethical retailing doesn’t end there: it provides its wares for charity events and buys free range when it can. As its founders are avid supporters of the Choose Cornish Campaign, its coffee is ethically sourced and roasted in Helston.

One man’s junk is another man’s treasure

In 2004, Canadian born Kresse Wesling, co-founder of Elvis & Kresse, moved to the UK. In that year, she was shocked to discover that 100 million tonnes of rubbish went to landfill, a monumental amount for a small nation island. After a chance meeting with the London Fire Brigade and learning about its decommissioned fire hoses going to waste, the entrepreneurial flair in Wesling ignited. She knew that tackling a 100 million tonne problem was a mighty feat but a ten tonne niche problem was one she believed was in her power to solve.

“Our entire goal from the beginning was to save London’s hoses and by 2010 the business had scaled to the extent where we were able to do that. The business didn’t start because we wanted to start a business; it started to solve a problem and we solved it,” Wesling professes. Ten years on from conception, the company now creates everyday accessories from 15 different reclaimed wastes including decommissioned fire hoses, military grade parachute silk, coffee sacks and leather.

“Our goal isn’t to just reuse; our goal is to cherish a material,” Wesling says proudly. “For us the mission is always to take something that was under loved and turn it into something that everyone can love in the same way that we do.” Wesling and her husband rescued the fire hoses that were beyond repair after years of service fighting fires and saving lives. They valued the history behind the hoses and turned them into everyday accessories.

In homage to the duty that the fire hoses served and the brave fire fighters they equipped, Elvis & Kresse donates 50% of profits made from products made of fire hoses to the Fire Fighters charity, as well as donating 50% of the profits from each collection to relevant charities that have provided the waste. Its small and committed team of 11 has proudly donated £50,000 to these charities thus far. “You could say that 50% was a lot of money, but actually its 50% of profit. I’m a firm believer that profit should be redistributed and should be shared,” Wesling states. She believes that donating profit is not a sacrifice for her. If more companies followed suit with this generosity it could be injected into communities and tackling world problems. 

Jade Saunders
Jade Saunders

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