Ready to Become a Next-Level Social Enterprise? Expand Your Industry-Level Impact.
Take your company's advocacy work to the next level by pushing your entire market space toward bigger, more meaningful changes.
As an established social enterprise company, you’ve already discovered that it’s possible to make social and environmental change a core part of your business. You’ve got a working business model. You’ve successfully tapped into your market. And you’re innovating in a way that allows you to meaningfully support both your cause and a viable business at the same time.
In short, you’re doing it right.
But if you want to drive big-picture change at the industry, national, or global levels, there’s only so much you can do on your own. And you shouldn’t rely solely on free-market competition to move the needle for you. If you want to take your advocacy work to the next level, it's time to find a way to push your entire market space toward bigger, more meaningful changes.
Driving Impact for Social Enterprises: Consensus vs Competition
Businesses rarely look at their direct competitors as allies. It’s much more common to view them as, well, the competition. But in the world of social enterprises, your competitors can also be your greatest resource when it comes to making a more meaningful difference. They, too, are invested in your cause. They, too, are harnessing the power of the marketplace to make the world a better place.
This important commonality, which goes beyond the desire to win more market share, can serve as an impetus for collaboration. Together with your competitors, you can work to build a framework for system-wide change that not only furthers your cause but also benefits your bottom dollar.
B Corps Certification: A Model But Not the Answer
Many social enterprises are already seeking certification as B Corps. The B Corporation certification program identifies businesses that operate with “the highest standards of verified social and environmental performance, public transparency, and legal accountability to balance profit and purpose.” In order to be certified as a B Corp, a business must score at least a B grade — or 80% — on the B Corp assessment.
The B Corporation program is important. It put measurable standards around how to run a purpose-driven business, broadly speaking. But not all B Corps are social enterprises, per se. And B Corps certification doesn’t address industry-specific differences, either.
So while B Corps certification is a good option (and possibly the most logical first step for your company), it’s not the only option — or the final answer.
Social Enterprise Lessons from the Field: Organics
The history of organic agriculture offers one example of the benefits of this sort of collaboration and consensus-building. Before the passage of the Organic Foods Production Act in 1990, the word “organic” didn’t have a standardized definition. Much like the term “all natural” today, “organic” could mean many different things depending on the source. As a result, the term wasn’t very meaningful at all.
Yet most organic farmers really were doing things differently from their conventional counterparts. They were producing food in a way that benefited the land as well as the people who ate it. They knew this difference mattered (or would matter) as much to certain consumers as it did to their own families. And they also knew they needed a way to meaningfully quantify that difference in their marketing.
Over the course of the 1980s, farmers joined together in a growing movement to create a national organic standard. This consensus-building effort resulted in the organic certification system we know today. Defining “organic” involved compromise, to be sure. The end results continue to be controversial among some farmers. But the new standard benefited and spurred on the growth of an entire industry.
Building Consensus Within Your Own Industry
Look at your own industry. Consider whether there might be a similar opportunity to work alongside like-minded companies. Can you find a way to create a meaningful label describing what sets you apart from others in your industry? Of course, you’ll want to make sure your label is backed up with a set of codified standards. These standards should relate to measurable and meaningful aspects of your company’s practices. For example, they could relate to the way you source materials or to the particulars of how you support your cause.
Your standard-backed label can then be used to build momentum within your industry — the more companies that get on board, the better. It can also justify the value of your products and even impact policy. From a marketing perspective, such a label creates proof of impact and makes your company’s social or environmental value proposition crystal clear.
Defining Your Difference Shows Proof of Impact
When you come up with a standard-backed framework, your entire marketing message becomes less wishy-washy. If you market your brand as being “environmentally friendly” but don’t back that claim up with concrete details, it won’t mean a whole lot. You need to put measurable structure around your claim in order for it to be truly compelling.
Allbirds, a sustainable shoe company, offers a good example of how to do this well. Instead of just calling themselves “environmentally friendly,” they’ve gone much further in defining their values by pledging to go carbon neutral. They’ve laid out a concrete plan for how they will get there, beginning with carbon offsets. They are also committed to moving toward increasingly sustainable practices.
In addition, Allbirds offers concrete examples of the materials and innovative technologies they already use in order to make their process more environmentally sustainable than the industry standard. By transparently communicating the details of their environmental commitment, Allbirds has put a concrete stake in the ground — and created a clear, authentic brand in the process.
Of course, Allbirds has taken these steps on their own. And many other social enterprises have already done something similar. But by joining forces with other similar social enterprises, you can set your business apart and drive bigger change at the industry level.
Not sure where to start? The United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals are well known in the social impact space. They are geared toward governments, of course, but you might consider using them as a loose framework to guide your exploration.
A Second Path to Industry-Wide Change: Licensing Sustainable Technologies
Does your business model involve an innovative new technology or process that furthers your cause? If so, consider licensing as an opportunity to expand your social or environmental impact while also growing your business.
For example, The Renewal Workshop is a social enterprise that seeks to reduce waste in the apparel industry. They developed a unique process to take discarded textiles and apparel and turn them into renewed apparel products, upcycled materials, and recycling feedstock. Then they licensed their technology and process to other brands, such as Carhartt and The North Face.
The Renewal Workshop’s unique business model is predicated on spreading more sustainable practices throughout their industry. Which leads to greater impact, reduced waste, and more business opportunity for everyone in their space.
As a social enterprise, you already balance the dual challenges of growing a business and meaningfully supporting a cause. And that is more than enough when you are first getting started.
But as you find your footing, you might just see a next-level opportunity snap into focus. By collaborating with like-minded competitors to create a new standard or licensing your unique process, you also have the opportunity to do something even bigger. You have the chance to multiply your impact in a way that ripples throughout your industry — and beyond.
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