Social enterprise and the environment: A review of the literature

Working Paper 22

Not-for-private-profit organisations and entrepreneurs within the social economy have long played a role in pioneering creative responses to environmental issues, although often with only 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. Sustainable waste and resource 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, 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 obstacles to scaling-up and potential adverse consequences of this, and the difficulties involved in assessing environmental as well as social impacts. Other academic literature 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 identified by these authors as the driving force of a sustainable society, although with the co-operation of governmental actors.

In conclusion, social enterprises, with their (in the main) local focus and concern with community engagement, are seen as integral to the advancement of environmental and social innovation in support of sustainability.

Research contact
Ian Vickers