The story of Clarity, a social enterprise that ran into financial difficulties and was bought out by a private entrepreneur, is a sad but not untypical one. The story (highlighted in Pioneer Post) is notable both for the detail - for the workers with disabilities who, allegedly, have not paid - but also the question of how consumers and the public have confidence in what is (or is not) a social enterprise.
Arguably, one of the factors in the growth of Fair Trade (certainly from a consumer perspective) was the use of the Fair Trade mark, a clear and unambiguous logo awarded to suppliers who met a set of criteria approved and monitored by the Fairtrade Foundation. The Foundation state that 93% of UK shoppers now recognise the mark, and have trust in it when deciding whether or not a particular purchase is ethical.
In the broader social enterprise landscape, members of Social Enterprise UK can use the "certified social enterprise" logo supplied to members. Enterprises can also apply for the Social Enterprise Mark, a separately owned and assessed mark similar to the Fair Trade Mark, awarded by the Social Enterprise Mark CIC.
The situation with Clarity (who used both) raises the question of how these standards are policed, and what happens when ownership or purpose changes in a business. Defining what is (or is not) a social enterprise has always been a point of debate in the sector (sometimes at some length), and it has been argued that a degree of ambiguity has been helpful. Social enterprise (some say) is a continuum, a journey, and different organisations may be at different points on that journey at different times.
However, if consumers are to learn how to trust a social enterprise "badge" in the same way they trust the Fair Trade Mark, then the social enterprise movement needs a single, robust framework for certification, with an agreed set of standards and at least some sense of how those standards are enforced. Is it time for the whole sector to swing behind the Social Enterprise Mark, and agree that this is the gold standard?
Supermarket chain Waitrose has suspended orders from former social enterprise Clarity and launched an investigation into the status of the London-based company.