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Using business and markets to catalyze economic transformation

people on fishing boat holding crabs

In many ways, the current economic system is failing because of its singular and blind faith in the “free market.” However, that does not mean that markets and free enterprise have no place in a new economic system that provides for life. In fact, Ecotrust Canada has often used “social enterprise” – businesses that are profit seeking while also creating social and environmental benefits – to demonstrate that business can be a vehicle for positive economic change. The key to success is to ensure that the business has, at its heart, a purpose beyond profit-making. In addition, its purpose is to provide goods and services that are needed by people, are affordable and effective, and that the ownership and benefits of the business are well distributed among the people who work at, and live alongside, its operations.

Why Ecotrust Canada?

Over its 24 year history Ecotrust Canada has launched five social enterprises; it is a leading practitioner and has the battle scars to prove it. One of the key things underscored by the Ecotrust Canada experience with social enterprise is that the process of spinning out a business from a charity is complex and difficult. Ecotrust Canada is a leader in the field because of its ability to take risk; leverage various sources of funding; tolerate ambiguity; and imagine and operationalize new ways of doing business. However, Ecotrust Canada still views itself as learning and growing its expertise.

The strategy

Ecotrust Canada does not see itself as a full-time incubator of social enterprise, but rather an organization that draws on social enterprise as a tool when it sees that one of its strategies can be better advanced through business development. We work diligently to ensure that every business we help create has embedded in it the twin objectives of being profitable while also improving social and environmental well-being in line with our overall strategic approach.

Currently our Social Enterprise work is being carried on through four different social enterprises that we are either part, or sole owner of. These include:

  1. The Amp which supports a mission driven co-working space in downtown Vancouver.
  2. Climate Smart which is dedicated to helping small to medium size businesses in Canada reduce their climate footprint.
  3. ThisFish which is implementing seafood traceability technology for fish processing plants across the world.
  4. TeemFish Monitoring which is focused on creating affordable and effective electronic monitoring systems for independent and small boat fish harvesters.

Key learnings

  1. Leadership — Mission-driven individuals with the business skills to start and run a business are rare. Learning the necessary skills is possible with drive, curiosity, humility and time. The intensity of a start-up makes the learning process more compressed and more important. To enhance success, mentors and advisors with business experience are critical.
  2. Culture — There are significant differences between the culture of an NGO and the culture of a for-profit business. Understanding and valuing the differences is important to ensure that charity staff are supported as they transition from charity to business.
  3. The launch process — The world of social enterprise is a creative and energizing space but the path to success is not easy. Launching a social enterprise is an entrepreneurial process — things can and will change over time. Wherever possible it is important that changes are a result of thoughtful reflection and not driven by financial concerns.