Spotlight on social enterprises

Lyly Greca, Miei Fiori creative director

These three businesses combine retail with making a social impact, whether it’s tackling youth homelessness, breaking stereotypes around people seeking asylum or bridging the poverty gap.

Lyly Greca

Creative Director

Miei Fiori

What’s Miei Fiori about?

We are a vehicle that exists to help combat poverty through creative and innovative business solutions centred around supporting people and protecting our planet. We designed our purpose first, then we chose the commodity to help us be that vehicle. We chose flowers and gifts because it’s a luxury commodity. Unless you have money that is surplus, you wouldn’t be buying flowers and gifts. If you’ve got money to spend, then you’re the right customer for us to help those who don’t. That’s our entire ethos.

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Our vision is to be a trusted household brand that empowers everyone to do good and our mission is to rally like-minded individuals to help better humanity. For us, our aim is to find innovative ways to bring money from the rich to help those less fortunate. 

With every $66 spent with our flower subscriptions over a 12-month period, customers will help sponsor a child with the necessities to go to school. With all our online flower and gift orders, our customers help provide the additional support needed to keep these children in school.

Prior to the pandemic, the bulk of Miei Fiori’s clients were corporates.

As a social enterprise, how do you balance profit with charity?

For us, we’re all about making a profit so that we can make a difference. We have

committed to giving away 100 per cent of every dollar after all expenses – our net profit – to a good cause. For us, the way to combat poverty is through children’s health and education, first and foremost. After that, it’s youth education and homelessness.

As a result, we don’t balance it by saying how much we should give, it’s about how we can work really lean and smart so we can make as much profit as possible – that’s what will make a difference in the causes that we support. We chose to be a full profit social enterprise rather than a not-for-profit because we didn’t want to be tied to documents to do good. For us, it’s about a choice. We choose to use business as a force for good.

Why did you decide to make Miei Fiori a B Corp business?

We chose to be a for-profit over being a not-for-profit. As a not-for-profit, the government makes you accountable through a lot of paperwork that you need to submit; you don’t need to do it if you’re a for-profit. But because we wanted to run Miei Fiori for charity, we still wanted to be made accountable. B Corp provides the governance, structure and international auditing that gives us that stamp of accountability that I absolutely love. It provides a force for good in a very transparent way and I really love that.

What are your plans for the future of Miei Fiori? 

Miei Fiori is about flowers, but through the pandemic, we’ve realised our customers love ordering gifts from us online. We offered fruit and vegetable boxes that were once a popular gift option for people who are getting well or on maternity leave. But during the pandemic, we saw a big uptake, because people wanted to buy it for themselves or their family and loved ones.

So we’ve decided to branch out and we’ve created the Miei group, where there are sub brands, like Fiori, Cucina and AMG. Fiori is just about flowers and plants, but Cucina offers subscriptions for fresh fruit, vegetables and pantry items. AMG will be about quality and design-led gifts not available in mass markets. Our plan is to go into other industries as our clients demand and take it overseas.

We’re super excited. We’ve been able to do it because of the pandemic and we’ve had the time. Some of our team has been able to work from home or wherever necessary to support their lifestyle. They’re super talented and multi-skilled, they can help with processes and policies, online, store refurb, stock management and marketing, whilst we’ve been working on systems, restructures and rebranding – it’s been a lot of work and we’re still in the thick of it. That’s what our future’s going to look like. 

We’re now sending all our gifts nationally and internationally, like our newborn hampers, foodie hampers, goodies for the gentleman or the traveller and luxury items to spoil ladies. With our flowers, fresh fruit and vegetable subscription business, it will be locally-based and we’ll only move interstate if there’s a head office in each state.

How has the pandemic impacted your business?

Ninety-nine per cent of our business relies on servicing corporate offices and hotels, so when the pandemic happened, we lost 90 per cent of our business revenue because events got cancelled and our corporate offices and hotels had to close. So all our flowers, gifts and event activities to support them literally disappeared within weeks. It happened quite quickly.

We’ve never relied on the public for sales. Our bread and butter was corporate, but head offices weren’t utilising us because of the pandemic. Each of those corporate brands have tens of thousands of employees that used to work in their offices. It was hugely challenging to ask them to help spread word of us, but they turned around and sent out EDMs to staff with articles promoting our business and used us to send care packs to clients and team members. We created unique codes to track the traction, too. 

It was not only amazing, it was heart-warming – that’s how we’ve been able to explore new opportunities. I don’t think we would have been able to continue if we didn’t get that help and encouragement. We literally lost 90 per cent of our revenue in four weeks and it won’t recover until January, but when we do, we will be unstoppable!

Bonnie Mooney, The Social Studio creative director

Bonnie Mooney

Creative Director

The Social Studio

What’s the Social Studio about and how does it work?

We are part-educator, part-retailer, part-production house and all about people. Our not-for-profit social enterprise uses fashion and creativity as a cultural connector to create work and learning opportunities for Melbourne’s refugee and new migrant communities. We empower young people from migrant and refugee backgrounds to design their own futures by providing fashion- and industry-based solutions to the main barriers they face upon arriving to our community: unemployment, isolation and difficulties accessing education and training. We do this by creating jobs, providing education opportunities, encouraging community engagement and fostering social inclusion.

We also offer a pre-accredited sewing course, workshops, paid traineeships, work experience opportunities and internships. Since opening our doors in 2009, we’ve empowered more than 780 youth to expand their fashion industry skills through our RMIT-accredited TAFE training and employment programs (with an impressive 96 per cent completion rate), while offering employment opportunities in both education and our in-house production studio and label. Eighty-nine per cent of graduating students obtain ongoing employment or move onto further study once they leave our doors. And many find work within them, too.

The Social Studio collaborated with 10 artists to create art scarves to support Melbourne’s refugee youth.

Currently, 100 per cent of our school team come from refugee and new migrant backgrounds, some are even past students who have become teachers themselves through our vocational training programs. The part-time course is open to anyone who comes from a refugee or new migrant background and is fully funded by The Social Studio, so it’s completely free for our students.

Everything we produce at our Collingwood studio – from client orders to our own sustainable label – is manufactured to Ethical Clothing Australia standards to minimise environmental impact. The Studio creates high quality, sustainable clothing for our in-house label and the local fashion industry. Our supply chain is transparent. Our approach is to work closely with our clients to educate and encourage more sustainable choices and practices, like using materials saved from landfill and donated by the industry to be upcycled. The operation also creates work experience and internships to help uplift and upskill our students, and all profit is invested right back into our community. And, because our ecosystem is designed to empower our community, we’re proud to say that 80 per cent of our staff also come from refugee and new migrant backgrounds, bringing their unique skills and culture to the cutting table.

In our community, we’ve supported our neighbours through helping incubate similar social enterprises, like The Social Outfit in Sydney and Twich Women’s Sewing Cooperative in Dandenong. We’ve also collaborated with hundreds of established and emerging designers, artists and events, including: Ken Done, Linda Jackson, Romance Was Born, Beci Orpin, Alpha60 and Virgin Australia Melbourne Fashion Festival.

How does The Social Studio make money and where does it go? 

Self-generated revenue comes via our production studio and retail store, which includes our in-house designed and produced label. Creative and collaborative projects help raise funds, such as last year’s Art Scarf Fundraising Campaign and the Kuwaii x Ken Done x TSS collection.

We also receive external funding, philanthropy and donations. Thanks to the support we receive through our philanthropic funding and social enterprise activities, all of our education and work experience programs are provided free of charge. Donations also help us to continue offering paid traineeships and the ability to employee migrant and refugee youth.

What are some of the challenges of running a social enterprise in general? 

Avoiding mission drift! It’s a typical problem for social enterprises – balancing our focus on our purpose and mission whilst also being self-sustaining. We balance this by measuring success not so much by revenue generated through our social enterprise arms, but by the opportunities we create for refugee and new migrant youth such as jobs, internships, collaborations or mentorships.

In what capacity can retailers help The Social Studio out? 

We do a lot of collaborations with retailers and labels who may have their own stores. For example, we collaborated with Kuwaii, a Melbourne-based label and we produced a collection for them. Some brands might produce offshore and are interested in doing more local production, so we take on orders for them. In that sense, that gives our staff opportunities and work.

There are great opportunities for retailers who can offer internships or work experience opportunities for our students. It might be something as simple as getting our students to spend a day in their design studio. Or if we’ve got a student who we think is particularly talented and wants to push things further, maybe they could get an internship with a retailer. In the past, our students have been taken on tours of Kookai’s production studios. Nobody Denim has hired TSS graduates, including their current production manager! In addition, Nobody has also supported The Social Studio through the i=Change giving platform.

Our in-house label is only made with donated fabrics and there’s no budget for us to pick and choose what we want. We only make products with what we’re given. A lot of brands have amazing supplies sitting around that they’ll never use that might be excess or dead stock – we can often re-purpose those for our own label or our students can use them at school. We’re always open to donations.

We have so many projects we do in conjunction with brands and labels. We can also design and produce things like uniforms. In 2019, we collaborated with cultural and community focused M-Pavilion, to produce their seasonal uniforms.

Do you think customers have become more aware of social enterprises and how they operate? 

They absolutely have. In more recent years, due to the horrors of fast fashion being exposed around the world, consumers are expecting more transparency and demanding to know more about where their clothes are made.

Consumers also want to invest in ethical and sustainable fashion through movements like the ‘I made your clothes’ campaign during Fashion Revolution Week. Through this public desire and shift, our organisation has subsequently been flagged and featured as an option for consumers to look at, work with and buy from.

In response to the ongoing Covid-19 crisis, The Social Studio has safely redirected our manufacturing efforts towards producing scrubs for our heroic healthcare workers and DHHS-compliant reusable cloth face masks for our community – all at cost price. Choosing to be involved in this response has brought about a new audience for the studio and shown the greater community the positive potential of a social enterprise. Our first run of face masks sold out online within 20 minutes!

I would also say that the recent Black Lives Matter movement has shone a light on social enterprises, like our own, which strive to welcome marginalised communities with open arms – this is the future we want to see and what should be the norm. We hope to change public perceptions of the migrant and refugee experience through what we do. Consumers want to support and align with social enterprises and know that their money is doing good.

Nick Pearce, Homie founder

Nick Pearce

Founder

Homie

What’s Homie about?

We’re an organisation that supports young people affected by homelessness and hardship. It’s about bringing confidence, life skills and experience to young people to make sure they are work-ready for their future. We work with 16-25 year olds. We’re really passionate about challenging the stigma around youth homelessness and providing tangible practical pathways out of their situations – we use retail as the medium to do that. 

Basically, we have our own clothing streetwear brand, online store and a physical shop on Brunswick Street in Fitzroy, where we try to start a conversation around youth homelessness and make caring cool. 

The shop is where we offer young people practical employment opportunities as well as partner with big retailers to train them in the ways they can work with young people, like Hanes, Bonds, Champion, Cotton On and more recently, Toms shoes and Nike. We’re trying to create a movement around the retail sector. 

Tell me about how your VIP shopping days work.

Since we first opened our doors five years ago, once a month, we close our shop to the public and we invite young people from a local youth service to come in and choose five items of clothing for free. We have barbers, food and coffee. We provide a dignified shopping experience and a pick-me-up in a tough time.  

The other great thing is the graduates from our employment programs come back and facilitate those shopping days – they’re the people who have gone from one side of the counter to the other and talk to other young people about the program. It’s been a wonderful exercise in providing that peer-to-peer support, someone who can share that experience. It’s a special component, although it’s been altered recently because we haven’t been able to facilitate those days.

At the Homie store in Melbourne, the brand tries to start conversations around youth homelessness.

So now we touch base with a local youth service and give them an allocated time slot where young people can jump online and order five items for free. Then we fulfil the care packs for them and send them out. We’ve worked with Launch Housing, Youth Projects and Melbourne City Mission.

What does the retail training that you offer involve?

It’s through our Pathway Alliance program. We facilitate that in our own store, but we also work with other brands to facilitate it in their stores. So essentially, we have five young people in our store, then we have 15 of them working in other stores as part of the program. We provide the training for store managers, the learnings for young people on the practical side of things, then throughout the week, they commit four hours that we pay them for. Now there are people who are working in other brands’ stores as hired employees.  

What are some of the cool initiatives you’ve done with other retailers? Tell me about the collaboration you did with Hanes.

Hanes was first part of our Pathway Alliance program, but then we wanted to deepen the engagement with them. We have a streetwear brand, they’ve got one of the best brands in the world [Champion] and they were keen to help elevate our brand through a collaboration.

We had a great synergy with Champion, which provided us with samples and seconds to create one-of-a-kind pieces for our Reborn collection. We’ve now had two drops that sold out within 20 minutes. Champion is such an amazing brand that has helped to elevate Homie and build our credibility in streetwear. It’s been special. 

I think customers want to support social causes these days, but brands need to still offer them a product that people actually covet.

We’re all time-poor and other things are going on right now. But if you make it really easy for them to buy from you and you’re transparent about what your business is doing, customers are more inclined to click that ‘shop’ button or enter the store. It’s two-fold. Our attention spans these days are so short and our hands are always on our phones, so you have a finite period of time to capture someone’s attention. We have to make it clear to them what the result is of them clicking ‘shop now’. 

You need to have a quality offering or people won’t come back. They might buy something for your cause as an initial hook, but what will keep them coming back is the quality product.

We’re really transparent about our sourcing too, so people know that a lot of thought has gone into the product they’re holding.

What can brands do to help Homie out?

If retailers have out-of-season garments, we might be able to upcycle them and create product with them, if there’s a synergy and they’re interested in a collaboration. 

We’re always looking for organisations to provide opportunities for young people through the Pathway Alliance. 

The biggest thing we’re looking for is the right attitude. It’s the awareness that we’re challenging that stigma around homelessness and young people. They’re so diligent, so hardworking and you can provide a practical solution through your work, but by perhaps having more open-mindedness and empathy.

This story appeared in the August 2020 issue of Inside Retail Magazine. To receive a print copy, click here.

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