Scotland’s Leadership in Social Enterprise

Posted: 03 September 2018, in Blog

This article appeared on the Social Enterprise World Forum website on 09/09/18 and on the PwC website on 03/09/18 as part of a SEWF series.


A decade ago social enterprise existed at the fringes of Scottish society. Today, just ten years later, public awareness of social enterprise and political support have both grown rapidly. We’re now becoming mainstream.

As the Social Enterprise World Forum takes place in Scotland, now is the ideal time to reflect on our achievements. This impressive global summit originated in Scotland and returns to Edinburgh on 12-14 September for its tenth anniversary.

The purpose of the World Forum is for social enterprise leaders, practitioners and supporters from all over the world to come together to share knowledge, build networks and discuss practical ways to build a more sustainable economy. It also attracts business support agencies, policy makers, community leaders, investors, activists and academics from across the globe. Previous locations include San Francisco, Johannesburg, Rio de Janeiro, Hong Kong and Christchurch.

Impressive global ventures like the Homeless World Cup are well known and there are many others. Grassmarket Community Project sells tartan textiles to California and Shanghai, and Hey Girls is exporting its sanitary products to tackle period poverty.

Rural social enterprises like Knockando Wool Mill have been making waves too, developing e-commerce platforms to target international customers. Shetland Soap Company has taken forward the innovation of new products and tourism, seeing sales rise throughout Europe. The rapidly expanding overseas hubs of the Social Enterprise Academy are bringing Scottish innovation to the global marketplace.

But where are we really at in Scotland in terms of social enterprise growth and influence? The Social Enterprise Census 2017 demonstrates a thriving sector but with some big challenges. There are now 5,600 social enterprises in Scotland, up from the 5,199 recorded in the first ever study in 2015. 599 social enterprises were formed in the last two years, up from around 200 a year noted in the first Census. Social enterprises employ the equivalent of 81,357 full time workers.

We compare very well with other parts of the economy. The total annual income of social enterprises is £3.8bn, that’s up from £3.63bn in 2015. The net worth of Scotland’s social enterprises is £5bn, an increase from £3.86bn. The economic contribution (GVA) of Scotland’s social enterprises is £2bn, up from £1.68bn compared to last time.

When it comes to ethical business practices we’re doing well too. A total of 64% of Scotland’s social enterprises are led by women. And 70% of Scotland’s social enterprises are led by and accountable to people in their local community. The average gap between lowest and highest paid in Scotland’s social enterprises is only 1 to 2.5. There is much more to do and of course more that could be measured, from environmental practices to workplace rights, LGBT+ equality and more.

But what do we really aim to achieve with the increased awareness, growth and impact of our movement? Indeed what is the purpose of social enterprise itself?

Ultimately it’s about building a new kind of economy, where everyone is included and where everyone can prosper. We seek to position social enterprise as part of this diverse movement. The real Living Wage, flexible working, local currencies, basic income, pay ratios, community ownership, co-operatives, high street regeneration, tax justice and fair trade all have a part to play. All of these different campaigns have the specific purpose of bringing long-term economic stability.

We want to drive forward wealth creation, ethical business practices and fairer workplaces. The social enterprise community must work in genuine partnership with both public and private sectors allies on this journey to a sustainable economy. Only by exchanging knowledge and working with businesses of all shapes and sizes can this be achieved.

A Scotland led by local, ethical and community businesses will be a happier and wealthier place. This is the core purpose of social enterprise and we look forward with eager anticipation to the next ten years.