Dresses Hiding the Systemic Structural Problems for the Naked Eye

Whilst drinking our 100% arabica dark roast Fair Trade coffee from Uganda out of our Keep Cups, we read the task for our course in ‘Entrepreneurial Skills’: Use the ‘Business Model Canvas’ for social enterprise design. I ask my groupmate Annie the first question that pops into my mind, “What the f*** is a social enterprise?”

As puzzled as me she takes out her Fair Phone typing ‘social enterprise’ into the search engine Ecosia.  The definition of the European Commission:

“A ‘social enterprise’ is an operator in the social economy whose main objective is to have a social impact rather than make a profit for their owners or shareholders. It operates by providing goods and services for the maker in an entrepreneurial and innovative fashion and uses its profits primarily to achieve social objectives”.

I didn’t quite get it. “So, does that mean that, for example, Tony Chocolonely is a social operator as the owners aim to make chocolate 100% slave free?”

Annie was not more assured than me: “I guess so, that seems like a social goal – no slavery in chocolate production. Of course you’d have to monitor and police it, define child labour from numerous cultural perspectives, ensure the cocoa is grown in an environmentally sustainable fashion and convince the consumer to bear this cost… and that’s BEFORE we get into the murky debate of whether it’s ethical structuring a country’s economy around a historically extremely volatile commodity where there is virtually no domestic demand in an industry that is dominated by just a few huge multi-nationals...

Bit of a head-scratcher that one. “What about using a less famous business model such as Manure Couture, the startup which makes clothing out of cow poo?”

I was even more puzzled – using cow poo is a social objective?! Time for another latte. But Annie explained that cow waste is currently seen as a waste product in the Netherlands as there is too much of this ‘resource’, leading to over-fertilisation of soils, which potentially causes water pollution.

Hmm, that sounds… promising? In excitement, I started to read about the startup and came across an interview with Jan Willem van der Schans, a sustainable livestock farming expert from Wageningen University. Turns out Dr. van der Schans criticised the startup for not solving any beef and dairy related-problems[1], but to merely green-ify these ‘dead end’ technologies instead.

Annie speaks out what I was just thinking. “So, these kind of startups calm our bad conscious, if we have one, about over-consumption and over-production by giving us the feeling that when we buy cow poo fashion we act in a sustainable way and even have a positive social impact. It appears to me that these fancy clothes hide the systemic structural problems for the naked eye!”

Me: “Yeah… but let’s just use this business case for our assignment, otherwise we won’t be finished on time and we already have to upload it in half an hour.”

Annie: “Yes, you are right. Let’s finish this assignment…

…still, I wonder… what the f*** is a ‘social enterprise’?”




[1]Problems such as huge methane emissions (which is a strong greenhouse gas, leading to global warming) and global nutrient transport (the export of food and feed from the global south to the north, steadily extracting nutrients from the ‘southern’ soils).

Written by Julia van Middelaar (AgriProFocus) & Tom Barton (Save the Children) on the lecture on Social Entrepreneurship by prof. Harry Hummels