Social enterprise and the environment: a review of the literature

Working paper


Vickers, I. 2010. Social enterprise and the environment: a review of the literature. Third Sector Research Centre, University of Birmingham.
TypeWorking paper
TitleSocial enterprise and the environment: a review of the literature
AuthorsVickers, I.
Abstract

This review suggests that more is known about social enterprise and the environment than is sometimes acknowledged, notwithstanding that many of the studies identified rely on survey evidence that is limited in various ways or case studies which lean towards the exploratory. Further complicating factors are that the environment involves a very broad, cross-cutting agenda and that ‘social enterprise’ is an ill defined concept, with socially and environmentally motivated ventures taking place under a wide variety of organisational forms, including within and/or spanning private and publics sectors.
Insight into the origins and development of the 'green social economy' is provided by the literatures on social movements, environmental politics and social innovation. The 1970s and 1980s in particular saw attempts on the part of activists to pioneer alternative technologies and other creative responses
to environmental issues, although with limited impact in terms of the wider dissemination of solutions. In recent decades, social enterprise activities that aim to combine environmental and social benefits have been particularly centred around employment creation and work experience initiatives targeted at disadvantaged groups and communities. The best available evidence suggests that up to a quarter of social enterprises in the UK see themselves as contributing to environmental aims, with only a small minority (5%) identifying the environment as a main focus of their activity. Sustainable waste and resource recovery/management constitutes the largest sector of the green social economy and, as such, has received the most systematic attention. Other activities include nature conservation, community-based renewable energy, sustainable housing, transport, food production and distribution, local currencies, and environmental education and awareness raising. Issues and challenges identified in the recent policy literature relate to the financially precarious nature of social enterprise operations, the dynamic and increasingly competitive nature of the markets involved, the difficulty of scaling-up and potential adverse consequences of this, and the complexities involved in assessing environmental and social impacts.
Recent literature also examines entrepreneurship and innovation that is motivated by environmental and social/ethical concerns. Entrepreneurial actors, with their propensity for innovation, experimentation and risk taking, are seen by some authors as the driving force of a sustainable
society. Key issues include the need to understand entrepreneurship as a process within ventures with co-operative structures and/or goals and the advantages and disadvantages of associative entrepreneurship and co-operative forms compared to more mainstream approaches to new ventures, and the role of diverse operating contexts and opportunities in facilitating or deterring green entrepreneurial action and innovation. While there are barriers and concerns about capacity, social enterprises, with their (in the main) local focus and concern with community engagement (including communities if interest, as well as of place), are seen as integral to the advancement of environmental and social innovation in support of sustainability. The literature therefore affirms the ongoing importance of the green social economy in terms of challenging the narrowly 'technical' solutions of the mainstream.

KeywordsSocial enterprise; environment; sustainability; social innovation; social entrepreneurship
LanguageEnglish
PublisherThird Sector Research Centre, University of Birmingham
Publication dates
PrintFeb 2010
Publication process dates
Deposited08 Jul 2013
Output statusPublished
Additional information

Working Paper 22.
The support of the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), the Office of the Third Sector (OTS) and the Barrow Cadbury UK Trust is gratefully acknowledged. The work was part of the programme of the joint ESRC, OTS Barrow Cadbury Third Sector Research Centre.

Web address (URL)http://www.tsrc.ac.uk/Research/SocialEnterprise/Socialenterpriseandtheenvironment/tabid/654/Default.aspx
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