Social value… what is it? There are different conceptions of this, but it is best explained with an example, which was how Nigel Rose from MACC (0) started to explain the concept in a talk at our NW 389 February branch meeting.
A restaurant, for example, could consider social value as perhaps supporting and donating to charities. Starbucks has its own charity, Starbucks Foundation, so when you buy a coffee there, some of your money goes towards this supporting communities. Some supermarkets will advertise what local charities they donate to on a noticeboard, for example, supporting local sports teams. Supermarkets providing places for food banks to collect for local people is a bit better, but still, is not the solution. However, Nigel Rose argued that this is not an effective way to generate social value.
Real social value must be an integral part of the organisation. Instead of making donations to charity, a local restaurant could consider how its own core functions of business could benefit local people. We know that zero-hour contracts have a damaging effect on employees, creating anxiety, financial insecurity, and place people’s ability to function on the whims of an unpredictable market. These contracts contribute to homelessness, debt, and poor mental health. So a restaurant could begin its quest to increase social value by banning these contracts.
Other ways to create social value could be actively campaign against zero-hour contracts, creating high standards of health and safety, encouraging trade unions, and providing more breaks for staff. One restaurant recently decided to close for staff evening meals (1), because restaurant staff often end up working horrendously long shifts without providing the minimum break time for staff. A restaurant could also encourage staff to apply from disadvantaged backgrounds, try to reduce food waste, source food locally, and even consider alternative methods of ownership, such as cooperative worker-owned model, where every worker has a democratic say over the businesses. This is genuine social value, where the core function of the businesses caring for employees, society and our environment.
The idea of social value as simply a donation to charity, an add-on to the core function of the business is an idea that fails under examination. For many businesses, the desire to improve society, especially in the age of austerity, is a genuine one. People can see the social problems we have and want to help. But a business that donates to charity to help is not doing enough – organisations needs to look how its own business functions are contributing to the problem.
As an example, we can examine Tesco’s supermarket. Holding food banks at Tesco’s is helping some people to have access to food in a country impoverished by Tory austerity. This is genuinely making a difference to many people in the country. However, Tescos core business contributes to the problem: the excellent and well-researched book Tescopoply (2) shows how new Tescos stores have a net negative impact on jobs on a local region. Although Tesco creates jobs, more jobs are lost by local businesses closing after a Tesco opens. Additionally, Tesco increasingly replaces workers with automatic checkouts, and so on. Workers are often given zero hours contracts, which creates massive insecurity and reports show that people can end up taking home only £19 per week (3). Donations to a food bank do not absolve the supermarket of the fact that they are part of the problem by making workers redundant, providing insecure contracts, and damaging the local economy. Tesco is overall having a negative impact on social cohesion, and the fact that they support local food banks does not absolve them of this.
Nigel Rose explained how this relates to Manchester. Manchester City Council are very keen on supporting social value – the staff there can see the terrible effect that austerity is having on their services and the people in the area, and so council has encouraged businesses to support social issues. This means that local businesses make connections to social causes in the area, for example,
connecting to local charities and voluntary organisations, and providing donations. Construction companies are particularly keen on this concept of social value. It means that social value is easy to measure – donations and spending on projects that are good for local people can be accounted for, measured, and even used for promotion and marketing. However, these construction companies do not look at how the core functions of the business create the problem. Many of the new high rise flats in Manchester are bought by investors that are not interested in living in them, they are tools for accumulating private profit, not for providing homes. These construction companies could effectively try to address the problem of homelessness by providing genuinely affordable housing (4) for people on low incomes, by putting limits on buy-to-let landlords, and limiting overseas purchases of housing, which are issues pushing people towards homelessness. Making donations to charities to support homeless people doesn’t erase the fact that construction companies are part of the problem in Manchester.
Our branch, Unite NW389, supports Nigel Rose’s work on changing Manchester Council’s approach to social value. This means that social value should not be an add on, it must be integrated into the organisation, showing respect for workers, communities and our environment across Manchester. A solution has to put social value above profits.