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Social enterprises save material – and people – from the scrapheap

UK businesses pushing social development have multiplied over the last decade

Leon Seraphin left school aged 14, was unemployed for years and spent several months in prison for a botched robbery.

In 2004, an employment charity offered him an apprenticeship at an east London restaurant, which he said taught him not just how to cook but "how to keep a job: getting up in the morning, being on time".

Mr Seraphin went on to become a chef himself, including a stint with the leading chef Raymond Blanc.

"I even cooked for the Queen; smoked salmon, lamb, and bread and butter pudding," he says proudly.

He now works at Brigade, a London restaurant which trains and employs homeless people.

Mr Seraphin is one of nearly 1 million people who work in about 80,000 social enterprises in Britain, according to Social Enterprise UK, the British body for social enterprise.


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A social entrepreneur is typically someone who uses commercial strategies to tackle social and environmental problems, combining social good and financial gain.

Businesses designed to bring about social development have mushroomed in the UK and globally over the past decade.

Russell Gill, the head of membership at the British supermarket Co-op, a consumer co-operative, says "there is no sector that can't benefit from having a social purpose".

"Businesses need to recognise the surge in customers wanting to tackle social community issues," he says, speaking at a gathering of social entrepreneurs in London.

An increasing number of small businesses in Britain and around the world are offering consumers environmentally sustainable alternatives.

The British start-up Elvis & Kresse makes luxury items like handbags and wallets using decommissioned fire hoses from London's Fire Brigade.

Kresse Wesling and her husband Elvis started their business "with £40 [Dh193] in pocket, making belts in their bedroom" after realising that London fire services were throwing away 10 tonnes of fire hoses a year.

"I've always been fascinated by garbage," she says.

Reducing food waste is increasingly popular, too. London opened its first zero-waste supermarket this summer, which sells goods in bulk, products made out of waste and durable alternatives to typical throwaway products such as plastic cutlery, razors and sponges.

Toast Ale, for example, is a craft beverage made entirely from surplus bread that would otherwise be thrown away.

"Forty-four per cent of bread is wasted in the UK," says Julie Prebble, production manager at Toast Ale. "So we're turning a product with a short shelf life – bread – into beer, which lasts longer and is more lucrative."

According to Mr Gill, while social enterprise is about making a difference in people's lives, it is "no excuse for a second-rate product, you have to be as good as the competition".

"Unlike charity there has to be something in a social business not just for others, but more importantly for the customer," he says.

Ms Wesling agrees. "Social enterprise need not mean poor quality: our craftsmen come from Prada and Vuitton, we're just cheaper because we don't have supermodels or shareholders," she says with a smile.

Contrary to the public perception, social businesses are "obsessed with maximising financial value".

"Give me 1,000kg of leather scraps and I'll make you £100,000 – most of which goes towards paying people's wages," she adds.

However, access to capital remains a major hurdle for many businesses, says Kieran Whiteside from Good Finance, a website that helps social enterprises to secure and manage investment.

"Social investment is only right if it can be repaid, so social enterprises need to have a good understanding of their financial situation," he says.

Updated: September 11, 2017 08:42 PM