Editorial: People and profit can get along

Ethical customers can put pressure on conventional firms to raise their sights'
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The Independent Online

This newspaper has always been in favour of free markets, but we have always insisted that there are more important things in life than money. That is why we publish our annual Happy List, to recognise people who do good for no pecuniary motive, as an antidote to the values implied by the Rich List. And that is why The Independent on Sunday is proud to sponsor the UK Social Enterprise Awards 2013, a competition to celebrate the best of not-for-profit and common-ownership businesses.

As we report today, the people of Alston in Cumbria have shown the power of social enterprise in organising their own high-speed broadband service, after BT said they were too remote to be connected without government subsidy. The town also supports several community-owned businesses, including a shop, bakery and a steam railway. We also report on the success of a very different social enterprise, Belu, the bottled water company which has won a contract to supply the Houses of Parliament. It uses glass bottles, claims to be carbon neutral and sends all profits to Water Aid.

In case this sounds impossibly soft, we should say that we see no conflict between social enterprise and hard-headed economics. For most purposes, the shareholder-owned company is the most efficient way of organising human activity to maximise common benefits. The present crisis of the Co-op bank suggests that, although mutual building societies and credit unions can offer advantages, we should not be too starry-eyed about them.

But there are powerful human needs that are not necessarily met by the public limited company model. In recent months, for example, strong feelings have been expressed about the failure of companies such as Amazon, Starbucks, Google and Vodafone to live up to their social responsibilities. Tax avoidance is not illegal, but beyond a certain point it offends the conscience of capitalism.

Opinion polls suggest many people boycott companies they see as tax-avoiders. This suggests the free market can contain its own self-correction mechanism to make it respect basic ethical standards.

But it also illustrates why we need social enterprises – so that ethical consumers can choose them in preference to "anti-social enterprises", thus putting pressure on conventional companies to raise their sights.

A lot of large companies realise this. Google, as we noted last week, has made a welcome contribution to trying to keep the internet free of images of child sexual abuse. Many corporate social responsibility programmes go well beyond a light coat of greenwash and represent a genuine attempt to hold companies and their suppliers to decent social values. But it is important to keep up the pressure.

Our readers have always been brilliant at telling us about those who contribute to the common good for the Happy List. So, if you know of a social enterprise that offers an outstanding example of an alternative to the faceless corporation, please go to the Social Enterprise UK website and nominate it for this year's awards.

And if you know of an extraordinary individual who is worthy of an award as a social enterprise champion, do nominate him or her in that category. Let us use every means at our disposal, as ethical consumers and supporters of social enterprise, to promote those who realise that there is more to life than the bottom line.