Big firms can enhance social mobility in 2017 by committing to buy from social enterprises

Big-firms-can-enhance-social-mobility-in-2017-by-committing-to-buy-from-social-enterprises

Kevin Ellis, chairman and senior partner at PwC on the companies commitment to buy from social enterprises and it's involvement as a founding partner on the Buy Social Corporate Challenge.

I suspect that, if you ask many in Britain what they want for Christmas this year, they might say “hope” or “change”. Reflecting back on 2016, the EU referendum showed that too many ordinary people haven’t felt the benefits of our strong economy and now find themselves on the margins of society.

As the chairman of one of the UK’s biggest businesses and employers, I’ve been pondering what more we can do to make a bigger societal contribution and to enhance social mobility in the interests of a more cohesive society.

Recruitment is one area and, as a firm, we’ve been identifying and eliminating barriers in our hiring processes for some time – looking to make it easier for young people with potential from any background to join us. That’s why we removed Ucas points from our application forms last year, and have offered hundreds of places to school leavers to join us as apprentices.

But I’ve recently found something else that business can do to make a difference.

PwC spends over £600m on procurement each year – so we decided to direct an increasing amount to “buy social”. What does that mean? If we buy products and services from social enterprises, we can create employment for those who find it hardest to access the jobs market – such as the homeless, ex-offenders, care leavers, the long-term unemployed or those with disabilities. All have talent to offer and are willing to work hard, if given the opportunity and the right sort of support.

We now buy goods or services from a total of 59 social enterprises, ranging from video production, to cleaning, to chocolates. It’s surprising how many options there are, once you start looking for them.

Take The Soap Co. This great little social enterprise is based in north east London, not far from where I grew up. It employs visually impaired people to make hand-wash and hand-cream. So we’ve stocked their soap in the washrooms of our 29 offices across the UK. It gives The Soap Co. a stable revenue, and gives its employees secure and supportive jobs. Not only that, but they also use environmentally sustainable materials in their packaging.

So why haven’t more companies bought from social enterprises in the past? I think this comes down to understanding value in its fullest sense. Typically big businesses focus on the best price for the quality they need. But social enterprises widen the definition of value to include societal contribution – something that businesses, including our own, are increasingly thinking about, and this includes focusing on indirect impact through our supply chain not just direct impact.

That’s why I was delighted to formalise our own commitment to buying social, signing up as a founding partner of the Buy Social Corporate Challenge, launched last year by Social Enterprise UK and the Cabinet Office, to play our part in helping reach its goal for £1bn to be spent with UK social enterprises by 2020.

As we all think about 2017, perhaps taking the simple step to “buy social” is one new year’s resolution which can make a real difference to people’s lives, and provide a new way for business to help reduce inequality and improve social inclusion in Britain.

This piece orginally appeared in City AM on 20 December 2016.