Social Enterprise: using ethical fashion to change lives and save the planet

Many will have watched the Extinction Rebellion unfolding on the streets of Westminster with probably a mixture of bemusement, support and irritation. In the last week, I have experienced all three of these emotions - as someone working in Westminster I have to trudge wearily from place to place, held up by people of all ages wearing rainbow clothes, picnicking and knitting on the road without the benefit of the electric powered buses.

The message at Victoria station was brief and uncompromising: "No buses due to demonstrations, alternatives are walk, cycle or take a tube."

The Extinction Rebellion spokesperson said we cannot operate business as usual any more, we have to do things differently. As a social entrepreneur, we are used to doing things differently, although blockades and camps are not among them. We create business models where the strategy, management and profit are all driven through a social purpose. We are not about gaining a return on capital but producing a social impact. For example, the LEYF social business model allows us to grow nurseries across London (we currently have 37) while our fee structure allows us to subsidise up to 40 per cent of those 4,600 children attending the nurseries as well as train 60 apprentices using the LEYF social pedagogy. Our social impact therefore is designed to drive high quality education for children and students.

Social business are often characterised by high levels of innovation and by participatory transparent and collaborative governance based on solidarity and reciprocity. This is generally because we are trying to address intractable problems like poverty through infrastructure and system change in employment, education and housing.

Social business is subject to the same market signals, stresses and challenges as any other business. We also face the same problems of finance, recruitment, management, growth etc. However, the upside according to Mohammed Yunus (2007) is that: social business has a better chance of changing the world than past ideas because the concept is so powerful yet so flexible and accommodating - rather than threatening the structure of business, it proposes a way to revitalize it.

So, now that you have the "what is a social enterprise" done, let me introduce you to one of the social business I work with often. (I think I will do a series on this as I try and procure from social enterprises as much as I can).

I like the LEYF nurseries to be homely and welcoming. I have therefore eschewed uniforms. However, you do need an apron or a tabard especially for messy activities. Those purchased from a catalogue proved to be too short, too skimpy and the pockets were not deep enough. So, I asked Jenny Holloway, the chief executive of the award winning social enterprise Fashion Enter to work with a group of staff to make a tabard that met their needs.

Being a chief executive is a tough gig, so finding another to talk to about the pain of running a business was a beneficial outcome of us doing business together. In one of our recent conversations, I was talking about the need to have business attire that had an ethical provenance.  The fashion industry is a highly wasteful industry so it's great that Fashion Enter is showing an alternative option. Jenny went away to think about this and then launched Belles of London.

This is bespoke service for women of a certain age who need one or two decent suits or dresses and matching bits and pieces to use for any business event. Ones that don't make you blend in so you looked like the waiting staff in black and white. Apparently, black is never great on us as we get older, we need to broaden the palette. As someone who never really got too bothered by fashion and was happy to wear stuff until it fell apart, I love the idea of smart ethically made work clothes.

So, to all those extinction rebels, maybe one of your strategies should be to support social businesses especially those showing the fashion industry that you can do business by doing good.

For the rest of you struggling to choose a few pieces for your capsule wardrobe look it up and buy something that will probably see you out to your retirement. (Remember as women with gaps in pensions we won't retire till we are at least 80 so that's quite good value!)

June O'Sullivan is chief executive of London Early Years Foundation. This blog first appeared on the LEYF website

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