Retailers take social responsibility to next level

The increasing coverage of retail food waste, packaging and plastics reduction initiatives has drowned out some other noteworthy social enterprises operating in the retail space. 

Donating dollars is one of the original planks of corporate social responsibility, along with donating time. Based on shopper feedback around social concerns, Target in the US began donating 1 per cent of its profits to local schools in 2010 to fund books, school supplies, field excursions and food. In 2015 it reached the US$1 billion milestone in education-oriented funding.

Other retailers such as Grill’d and Woolworths allow shoppers to choose the charity to which they wish to donate from a shortlist. 

Melbourne’s i=change, founded in 2013, also allows customers to choose the development projects they wish to support. I=change partners with 40-plus retailers, including Camilla, which commit to donate a proportion of every sale, and customers can track the impact in real time. As at last week i=change had reached $1.4 million in donations. I=change operates an e-commerce site where customers can shop online by brand.

Whole Foods, aside from supporting and ranging local suppliers (as does IGA in Australia), runs a local producer loan program which gives out up to US$10 million annually in low-interest loans to independent farmers and food purveyors to develop their businesses.

One-for-one gifts

Footwear brand Toms, founded in 2006, donates a pair of shoes to a person in need for every pair of Toms shoes sold. It also sells and provides eyewear for people in developing countries, and its bags products benefit advancements in maternal health. In countries where Toms Roasting Co sources its coffee beans, it helps provide safe water. The company has sold 60 million-plus pairs of shoes, employs more than 500 people and in 2014 sold a 50 per cent stake to Bain Capital for US$625 million. 

Similarly, Warby Parker donates a pair of glasses to a person in need for every pair purchased and has sold more than 250,000 pairs of glasses in the past decade.

Other companies utilising the one-for-one model include Roma Boots, BoGoLight, Figs and OneWorld Futbol Project to provide lighting, sporting equipment and school uniforms.

Australia’s OzHarvest collects excess food from commercial outlets and delivers it to more than 1300 charities. Founded in 2004 in Sydney with one van, OzHarvest now operates nationally rescuing 180 tonnes of food per week from 3500-plus donors across multiple retail and foodservice channels. It also offers several education programs and is currently piloting one for primary school students. In April, it opened what it says is Australia’s first “rescued food” supermarket in the Sydney suburb of Kensington.  

Social enterprises

Social enterprises are part business and part charity, either not-for-profit, or if for-profit then typically with at least 50 per cent of profits going to charitable organisations and activities. Where charities’ primary sources of income are donations and bequests, social enterprises make most of their money from trade by selling products and services. They emphasise ethical and sustainable sourcing and business practices and appear to be particularly attractive to millennials, who see the opportunity to combine entrepreneurship with creating social or environmental change.

Melbourne’s The Social Studio, founded in 2009, is one such example. It is an integrated fashion business including a clothing label, manufacturer and digital printing studio with a retail store, all dedicated to improving the lives of young Australians with refugee and migrant backgrounds who have struggled to access education and employment. 

The organisation provides work experience, volunteer opportunities, employment, TAFE-level training and internships. It also facilitates legal advice and counselling. Community engagement is encouraged through public workshops and events.

The Social Studio and associated Printing Studio takes private commissions for tailored designs. Its garments are ethically made using reclaimed and upcycled materials, and certified by Ethical Clothing Australia. The success of The Social Studio has seen it mentor similar creative enterprises, including The Social Outfit in Sydney, Twich Women’s Sewing Cooperative in Dandenong, and No Sweat Fashions in Canberra.

The Social Outfit in Newtown similarly assists people from refugee and new migrant communities. Its fashions are shipped internationally, and e-commerce customers can shop by clothing type, accessories or collaborations with specific designers, as well as donate online. Clothing is manufactured on-site by paid sewing technicians sourced and trained by local migrant communities.

Sewing technician placements typically run for six months to two years and serve as a stepping stone to external employment. In its first four years of operation, more than 300 refugees and new migrants have participated in the Social Outfit’s employment and training programs, creative projects and fashion shows.

Dubbing itself “the label for the streets”, Melbourne’s streetwear social enterprise HoMie uses a similar model but instead focuses on assisting and destigmatising the homeless. Originally founded as a platform for people experiencing homelessness to share stories, in 2015 the first HoMie street store pop-up launched in Melbourne Central shopping centre before moving to a permanent flagship location in Fitzroy. It has begun upcycled clothing collections, and 100 per cent of profits are distributed to young people affected by homelessness or hardship.

Jobs and training

HoMie’s monthly VIP shopping days close the doors to the public to enable invited young people connected to homelessness support services to “shop” for five free items as well as receive free haircuts, beauty services and lunch. It offers six-month paid internships – both at its own store and at CottonOn stores – which include in-store experience and accredited training.  CottonOn interns from the program have since moved on to paid employment with the brand.

Also located in Fitzroy, award-winning ASRC Catering is a social enterprise operating under the umbrella of the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre. Designed to create employment pathways for people seeking asylum, it offers training, mentoring and paid work through catering and event services. Its food is sourced from local suppliers and its menus reflect the cultures and backgrounds of its members and employees, particularly from Africa, the Middle East and Asia. 

While donations from the public are obviously accepted from social enterprises, it’s the nature of their operations that effect change.

Norrelle has 20 years’ experience in retail, category, channel and customer, working in and with global retailers, manufacturers and consulting houses. Contact Norrelle on 0411735190 or email


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