Element editor James Russell introduces Element's guide to social enterprise. Check back online over the next two weeks - or grab a free print copy today in the New Zealand Herald.

Social enterprise: An organisation that applies commercial strategies to maximise improvements in human and environmental wellbeing, rather than maximising profits for external shareholders.


Conscious capitalism: Businesses which have a higher purpose in terms of environmental and social goals, while also maximising shareholder profit.


Since man first traded a fish for a handful of berries, business and commerce have existed and thrived. For a while, everything was hunky dory.

For quite a while, actually. When the industrial revolution arrived, so too did fortunes beyond which had ever been imagined. When the Second World War ended, growth of every conceivable measurable skyrocketed yet again.

What we didn't realise was that the vast majority of businesses were making the equivalent of Dr Seuss's Thneeds, with no regard for the social or environmental effects that came from a direct result of making products or providing services.

Where our raw materials came from, what they were made from or how they were obtained didn't matter. What happened to them after our customers finished with them didn't matter either - that was someone else's problem.


The realisation that resources are finite, and that damage has been done, has inspired a new business philosophy - that of the 'conscious capitalism' model.

This redefines success, broadening the parameters by which it is measured to include environmental and social goals, and enlarging the pool of benefactors to all stakeholders - as opposed to just shareholders.

In effect, it's the hybrid child of the union of traditional business, environmentalism and charity. Further, that business model has been applied with fantastic effect toward helping to solve some of society's most pressing social concerns.

The benefits of the conscious capitalism model include growing awareness of environmental problems or social issues, the more rapid achievement of social outcomes and environmental goals, the reduced need for state or philanthropic funding (or, at least, the one-off need for it only), additional learning and innovation to solve problems, and the sustainable nature of these organisations due to their ability to create revenue or be self-sustaining.

It sounds like some utopian ideal, but a few of our most forward-thinking business people have been operating these models for years.

But the time is well overdue when new organisations must aspire to do the same - for the sake of the fragility of the planet's ecosystems and climate, the wellbeing of its inhabitants, and the scarcity of resources.

Today in print and over the next two weeks online, we'll publish our guide to starting a social enterprise or a conscious business, or turning your existing company into one. It's designed to help you through start-up, incubation, funding, launch and growth. We will talk to industrial designers, marketers, entrepreneurs, incubators and strategists.

Grab a free print copy in today's Herald, bookmark the links, and refer to it often.

It might just inspire you to build something you can be truly proud of.

Check out the articles in the guide so far:

Social Enterprise Guide: Purpose

Social Enterprise Guide: Business Planning and Market Research

Social Enterprise Guide: Incubation and Funding

Social Enterprise Guide: Product/Service

Social Enterprise Guide: Intellectual Property

Social Enterprise Guide: Measuring SROI

Social Enterprise Guide: Governance

Social Enterprise Guide: HR

Social Enterprise Guide: Networks

Social Enterprise Guide: Brand and Marketing