Buy Social, Change People’s Lives

July 15, 2014

A few weeks ago, over 100 people gathered at the Buy Social Canada Summit in Vancouver. One of the best lines of the day was from a procurement manager on deciding to pay a living wage for commercial cleaning contracts. This decision was made despite the fact that a living wage would be well above market rates in what is often an exploitive industry and would therefore cost the company more. She said it was a simple choice when they came to the conclusion “that we were not buying cleaning services, we were changing people’s lives!”

CCEDNet members Melanie Conn (Common Thread) & Peter
Frampton (Learning Enrichment Foundation) demonstrate
importance of hats that fit & feel right as a metaphor for good jobs

Social enterprise leaders, private sector and government procurement specialists, and many more spent a full day on June 17th learning and thinking about how to change people’s lives through social purchasing at an even greater scale than we are now. Why? Because the social, economic, and environmental imperatives here and around the world demand it. We can no longer pretend that the world is not shaped by our economy, our economy unshaped by the enterprises in them, or the enterprises unshaped by our purchasing choices. The economy is a human construction, and as such, can change if we want to see change happen. The social enterprise sector is exploding around the world, but to achieve both scale of economic and social impact, the demand side for their goods and services must also grow.

Every time we spend a dollar we shape the world we live in. Our choices have impact both locally and around the world. The planet and the people on it bear the benefits and consequences of how we shape our economy, and we shape our economy through decisions we make when we spend our money.

We can chose to direct our purchasing impact to economic models that heal our planet rather than harm it, to farmers around the world paid fairly for their produce rather than to corporations that exploit those same farmers, to enterprises that create economic opportunities for those with barriers to employment rather than for those who already have a disproportionate share of societies wealth, and to businesses whose reason for being is to contribute to quality of life in our communities.

Like drops in a pond, each dollar has little influence on its own. But when millions of consumers, whether they are individuals, non-profits, businesses, or government, decide to shift their purchasing it can have a significant

impact on our economy and therefore on our society and planet. This will happen when we become more aware of the full impact, and the full value, of our purchasing options.

No longer are just price and quality part of the criteria; now the impact on the environment and on society more broadly can and should be calculated. With this full value analysis, options with good price and good quality do not represent the best purchasing choice for creating the world we want to live in if they have negative environmental and social impacts.

Think about it. The only reason many social enterprises exist is to create jobs for people that no-one else will hire. We have a choice to make, do we continue to relegate people to the margins of society, both socially and economically, and bear the justice, health, and social assistance costs that result? Or do we invest in something for them that is so much less costly: a job? Thousands of Canadians want to work, but face barriers to employment. Social enterprises can create the chance for them to gain experience, income, and dignity. However they can only exist as a business if they have customers. And if you and I and others buy goods and services from social enterprises they will continue to create the social impact they are pursuing, which benefits every one of us.

It was great to see the commitment from purchasers at the Buy Social Canada Summit to make this shift, it was great to see social enterprise leaders articulate their challenges and vision around growth, and it was simply wonderful to see such a large room full of people dedicated to making this happen.

As a concrete action towards this shift, the Summit marked the launch of a new branding mechanism called Buy Social Canada that will help to facilitate purchasing decisions towards positive environmental and social impacts. Based on a successful model from the UK, Buy Social Canada will certify both social enterprises and social purchasers in Canada and promote the growth of social procurement in Canada.

Yes, in some ways changing procurement policy and patterns is complicated. In other ways it is simple. Be thoughtful, think about real value, and act.

Brendan Reimer is the Manitoba Regional Director for the Canadian CED Network. He is also the manager of CCEDNet’s Enterprising Non-Profits – Manitoba program and a member of the Social Enterprise Council of Canada.