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Praise for the Partials

Yes, that’s right. The Partials. Those for-profit companies that have been appearing on and off for decades who are very much about making money but have a ‘partial’ involvement in the social enterprise space (widest definition as usual). It was a ‘partial’ that got me interested in social enterprise in the first place. When I was 16 I read a biography of Anita Roddick of Bodyshop fame. I was fascinated by this idea of being a for-profit company but having social change ambitions, this idea that one can blend elements together from the for-profit and non-profit worlds . That the for-profit and non-profit world doesn’t need to be so far apart. Activism. Ethical consumerism. Fair Trade. It was heady stuff for my small teenage mind. Now some (many!) years later there are other examples. Other slightly hippy organisations came out of the Seventies such as Ben and Jerry.  Now there are another breed of Partials that have appeared in the last decade.

Take Nutriset and its ground breaking product plumpy’nut, that Nutella-like product that is feeding millions in the developing world. High protein, with no need for water to use it, and with a two-year shelf life, this inexpensive food has been a big hit with the W.H.O. and UNICEF. The company claims 80% of its profits are reinvested to develop new products. Created in 1986, Nutriset is the only food company fully dedicated to nutritional issues in developing countries, and was actually set-up by a former African aid worker from France.

Although the company claims that  “Nutriset’s mandate is to facilitate the access and the availability of products designed for the enhancement of the nutritional status of children and other vulnerable people”, where there is profit there is always controversy. The company has a reputation for protecting its patents and this is being challenged by other companies that want to sell similar products.

Some of these new experiments haven’t gone so well. Take the cautionary tale of Nau, the environmental clothing store set up by some ex Nike and Patagonia employees. The company had a strong online presence, funky stores that reminded one of the Apple stores, and with the commitment of giving 5% to causes (and you got to choose where your 5% went). There equally funky clothing were designed with eco-sustainability in mind. They talked about ‘sustainable marketing’ by design. CEO Chris van Dyke talked about ‘challenging the nature of capitalism.’

Alas it all fell apart. Unable to close a fourth round of financing the firm closed in May 2008 only a couple of years after starting up. The company dismissed conjecture that Nau’s earth-friendly business model was too complicated for investors. Though their 5% contribution raised about $250,000 for causes.

Recipient of the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize, Professor Muhammad Yunus, who created Grameen Bank and the idea of microfinance, often talks about a new form of capitalism. That ALL companies have a stake in a better, cleaner world. That Corporate Social Responsibility is not enough. Perhaps through these experiments in the capitalist model (and there are plenty more) we can start to see how this might work in practice.

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