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Living the moral high life: a week consuming consciously

As part of the The Spinoff’s social enterprise series, Madeleine Chapman attempted to use only the most woke businesses for a week’s worth of consumption. It wasn’t easy but she was left uplifted.  

A week of living entirely from the fruits of social enterprises would be fun, is what I said aloud at work last month while being entirely ignorant as to what the words ‘social enterprise’ meant. I’d heard people talking about it in conversations I wasn’t interested in and assumed it was a good thing that rich people engaged with. So I wasn’t exactly an expert on the topic but Google has the answer for everything so I knew I’d be fine. Turns out Google has the answer for everything except what exactly a social enterprise is.

With New Zealand being fairly new in building its social enterprise network, I sought answers elsewhere. Namely, Scotland. Social Enterprise Scotland is a member-led organisation that brings social enterprises together to not only collaborate but make it easier for consumers to identify them. According to their website, “social enterprises aim to make a profit just like any private sector business. However, 100% of their profits or surpluses are always reinvested back into their social and/or environmental purpose.” So I googled social enterprises in Auckland and found a lot of websites giving different definitions from that – but seemingly no websites actually telling me how I could support a social enterprise.

I knew of exactly one, Eat My Lunch, so signed up for that. It’s far and away the most popular and recognisable social enterprise in New Zealand, due in part (I think) to its simplicity. Customers purchase a lunch online which is delivered to their home or place of work. For each lunch that’s purchased, a lunch is donated to a hungry child who needs it at school. It’s straightforward and effective. Buy one, give one, so to speak. While not all social enterprises use this model, it’s the easiest to wrap your head around and the benefits of your custom are immediate. Despite never seeing the reciprocal benefits of my lunch, each day I relished the knowledge that I was sharing a sandwich with a young hungry Kiwi somewhere.

Clearly, I was hungry, and so are thousands of Kiwi kids every day at school.

On Monday night I left the office to volunteer at Everybody Eats, a social enterprise which also aims to feed the hungry through the support of more fortunate customers. Everybody Eats was set up by restaurateur Nick Loosley, and runs out of Gemmayze St restaurant in St Kevin’s Arcade, who have formed a partnership to allow their kitchen and courtyard to be used every Monday night for the cause. When I arrived at 5:30 for a 6pm start there were already tables filling up with people, most of them people who are experiencing homelessness. It’s a sit-down service with three courses; a soup entree, a main, and a dessert. All free, with a koha tin on a corner table for those able to contribute.

I was put on waitressing duty, the first time I’d waitressed outside of a family event in my life, and it was a workout. Service was continuous as we served around 200 people between 6 and 8pm. According to one of the organisers, there are usually three paying customers for every seven who can’t afford it.

How is this a viable business? To start, all the workers are volunteers, whether they’re chefs, hospo staff, or people with a bit of spare time. They’ve paired up with local cafés and restaurants and supermarkets to collect their extra food and reuse it, and each week high profile guest chefs come in and turn it into a feast. It’s all good food, we just like to throw out good food a lot of the time. At the end of the day the cost of feeding each person at Everybody Eats is one or two dollars. Usually this is covered by the 30% paying customers while any extra donations are put towards equipment, transportation and kitchen staples liked tinned tomatoes.

Again, its attraction is that paying customers can literally sit next to the person they’re helping, and that’s part of the mission too, bringing disparate communities in the city together. With the rise of crowdfunding campaigns it’s become easier and easier to help people you know or at least have met, and it’s become preferable to helping those in need who are out of sight (and out of mind). It worked for me, I felt wholesome and deserving of my meal at the end of the night.

Chefs at work at Everybody Eats on Monday nights. (Photo: supplied)

On Tuesday night there was no Everybody Eats and suddenly I had no food. I had noticed that a lot of social enterprises involving food were mostly intermediaries between local farmers and customers. Basically there were services that would allow you to shop at the farmer’s market without leaving your house. It sounded good to me but I needed food immediately so I went to the next best thing, Commonsense Organics.

While not a social enterprise, I figured it was better than going to the supermarket because of its organic and ethically sourced products. Trying to consume ethically is a spectrum, with thoughtless consumption way down one end and pure charity down the other. Social enterprise works to find a mutually beneficial middle – but if there’s no supply to match the demand (in this case, my pressing hunger) the neighbour of organic goods is the next best thing.

While grocery shopping I replaced my hand soap, washing liquid, and shower products with those from Ecostore, and in the process realised the price increase was well worth the feeling of smug superiority I got when I put them on display in the laundry of my flat. Despite not falling on the lists of social enterprise, it’s part of the sector’s framework, businesses out to make a profit, but with a distinct social goal as part of the offering – in this case a reduced environmental footprint. It’s definitely more expensive being woke, but it made me start to think about the hidden cost of the decisions we make with our wallet.

The same thing happened with clothing. With social enterprises being so new there’s a lack of easily accessible clothing options, I turned to the next best thing and tried to buy from companies who either source their materials locally or have proven to support environmental and social causes. Patagonia were at the top of the list for support, and a couple of local stores looked promising. But when I hiked up to Ponsonby to try them out, I realised that at above average height and weight, I was unable to wear woke clothes, which were all for slim bodies.

I aired my complaints to anyone who’d listen and was turned on to NOPESISTERS clothing, a social enterprise label where proceeds from each t-shirt design they put out go to various causes around the country. I didn’t find much else by way of clothing so I got some All Birds shoes (local, organic wool), and a Patagonia backpack, both of which I’ll wear to the bone and that’s got to count for something, right? Somehow managing to get a blister from wearing woollen shoes only confirmed that this was a hard week to complete.

Ethical from head to toe for my first day at the School of Woke.

If I’ve learned anything from this week of trying to be a more socially conscious consumer, it’s that I want to do good things – I’m just too lazy to figure out the best way to do them. I don’t think I’m alone in this. After reading the ‘mission statement’ on some big brands’ websites it’s clear that according to their copywriters and PR departments, every business is doing the most for the community and the environment. But that simply cannot be true. So how are we supposed to know who’s really doing what they say they’re doing? A social enterprise register is apparently on its way which will help consumers find business which are social enterprises and what their mission is. When it goes live, I’ll be the first to have a look, because after a week of social enterprise living I’m still not exactly sure what a social enterprise is.

On Thursday night I was out and wanted to find another social enterprise dinner but again had no luck. I was heading to Subway and feeling bad until I remembered I could be my own social enterprise. So I bought two sandwiches, ate one, and gave the other to the homeless man sitting outside. One role of social enterprises is to help bridge the gap between consumers with means and those without through the power of your purchase. But that doesn’t mean you can’t do it yourself too.


The content is brought to you by Kiwibank in association with the Social Enterprise World Forum.

The Social Enterprise World Forum is on September 27-29th in Christchurch.

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