Buy-It-Forward: 12 Social Enterprises For Consumers

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  • Article by Amy Bradney-George
  • April 10, 2015 at 12:50 PM

Imagine if you could go shopping or dining and know that your choices are also supporting good causes and positive change in the world. A growing number of businesses in Australia are actually achieving this through their social enterprise models.

At first glance it looks like an unlikely pairing: charities and traditional consumer-focused businesses usually have very different goals. On the one hand, charities are about giving back to the community (whether local or global), supporting good causes and inspiring positive change in the world. On the other hand, businesses like cafes and shops are more focused on providing a service and making a profit on what is sold.

But it doesn’t always have to be that way, and as more people realise this, there has been a surge in traditional businesses that give straight back to charities or set up their own social change initiatives. The result is that everyday people can actually buy things they want or need and help create change in the process.

Entrepreneur and businessman extraordinaire Richard Branson even has a name for this business movement: “benevolent capitalism”, or Capitalism 24,902.

“Every single business person has the responsibility for taking care of the people and planet that make up our global village, all 24,902 circumferential miles of it,” Branson says in his book Screw Business As Usual.

Branson adds that more people are channelling their desires for positive change into their businesses and that “the future profitability of business depends on integrating social and environmental values into the core of our business strategies.”

“There are many small-scale businesses around the world – from the townships of Johannesburg, to the villages of India, to rural cheesemakers in France, to organic vineyards in Australia, to llama knitwear cooperatives in Ecuador – that are all changing the way business is done for the better.”

A well-known example is Oxfam, which has its own shop (brick and mortar as well as online) filled with colourful, global giftware, as well as its own coffee and chocolate. Proceeds from purchases go back into its charitable ventures, while everything sold is certified Fair Trade and sourced from communities around the world that Oxfam also supports in producing and creating the products sold.

“The foods and handcrafts found in our shops, on our web site and in our catalogues are sourced from individual workers, craft bodies and fair trade organisations in developing countries,” Oxfam says on its shop website.

“We buy their goods at a fair price and sell them in Australia so that communities may be helped in their struggle for a better life.”

While Oxfam Shop has been around for years, there are even more local businesses all around Australia that are supporting this shift towards social enterprise businesses. So here we take a look at 12 places you can buy things and make a difference at the same time.

1. Crêpes for Change

Focused on dealing with youth homelessness, the Crêpes for Change food van can be seen “roaming Victoria’s streets, markets and festivals with 100% of the profits going to the alleviation of youth homelessness in Australia.”

“It’s heartbreaking to see people unable to leverage themselves out of a bad situation,” founder Dan Poole says.

“As well as raising much-needed funds from sale of our crêpes and coffee, we will also run a program to provide hospitality and barista training to those that need it. This level of support will allow young Australians that are homeless, or at risk of homelessness, to gain the skills needed to find employment and prosper on their own.”

Crêpes for Change is currently accepting donations to help launch and expand its business plan, and also offers catering and other ways to get involved on its website.

2. Earth Heartbeat

Earth Heartbeat is an environmentally conscious eco store that aims to promote certified organic, healthy and sustainable choices. It’s unique sales pitch is centred on five key things, outlined on the Earth Heartbeat website :

  1. Genuine organic and healthy sustainable products
  2. Supporting local and Australian businesses
  3. Promoting Fair Trade and ethical responsibility
  4. Free eco-gift wrapping
  5. Excellent value for money

The shop itself is located in the little town of Tyalgum near Mt Warning in northern NSW, offering “ever changing products and specials” for visiting customers.

While the store is a daytrip’s distance from major cities and destinations like Byron Bay, the Gold Coast and Brisbane, there is also an online store that offers a wide range of products, from jewellery and books to supplements, chocolate and beauty products.

3. Espresso Train Café and Catering

This Brisbane-based social enterprise was founded by the Nundah Community Enterprise Co-operative (NCEC) as a way to provide “meaningful employment for people with a disability”.

All of the food is made in-house, and both the café and catering arms use local suppliers and source seasonal ingredients “that meet our sustainability principles such as organic and free-range produce”.

NCEC says that Espresso Train – along with the organisation’s other social enterprises – helps fill a huge hole in the employment sector as “those with an intellectual disability are often keen to work but are less likely to be employed due to the pace at which they learn”.

“These programs assist with some of the causes of long term unemployment for those with an intellectual disability, through the provision of stable accommodation for employees who are homeless, support for workers with challenging behaviour, addiction management and parenting support,” NCEC says.

4. Gideon Shoes

This shoe company was created as a way to sustain community projetcs like The Street University, which the website describes as “an educational facility based in South West Sydney that empowers disadvantaged youth through early intervention education, mentoring, narrative therapy and public health tools.”

All Gideon Shoes are handcrafted and anti-sweatshop, using a wide range of “almost entirely” Australian materials that includes cane toad hide and kangaroo leather.

“Premium materials and true craftsmanship mean this is not disposable fashion – this is long lasting luxury. You’ll feel the difference as soon as you put on your pair of Gideon Shoes,” the website says.

The shoes are sold in two stores in Sydney and one in Melbourne, as well as through an online store.

5. Seven Women

With the motto of “Fairtrade Handmade Effective Aid”, this retail social enterprise is focused on supporting marginalised and disabled women in Nepal.

As the Seven Women website explains, the organisation was founded in 2009 as a “grass roots development project to create change for seven women who were found operating out of a tin shed and enduring harsh discrimination as a result of being disabled.”

When founder Stephanie Woollard met these women, she invested in training them to provide skills and the means for them to earn an income. Over time, the organisation began selling the products made by the women, with profits going back into supporting the organisation’s initiatives.

“Steph now designs what is sold herself and funds the project through the sale of the women’s hand-made products,” the website says.

“Through a dedicated and passionate team we have been able to establish two centres in Nepal which have trained and employed over 550 women.”

Seven Women sells things such as bags and purses, hats, scarves, clothing, stuffed toys and home decorations, with all online orders over $50 also offered free shipping.


This Melbourne-based café supports young people experiencing homelessness by offering them training and work, as well as other support services – all while offering customers great coffee and meals.

“Youth homelessness and disadvantage are hard to swallow. That’s why STREAT works with others like you to stop it, one mouthful at a time,” the website says.

“Together we offer disadvantaged youth aged 16 to 25 a supported pathway from the street to a sustainable livelihood.”

STREAT has three cafes around Melbourne and runs a unique Pay It Forward loyalty program: when a customer buys 9 coffees from STREAT, the 10th is given to a disadvantaged person for free. So far STREAT says “around 5000 free coffees and 500 free meals have been generated by our customers since STREAT started in 2010.”

7. Street Food Australia

Street Food Australia is a Brisbane-based social enterprise supporting migrants and refugees that want to enter the food industry in Australia.

It describes itself as an “umbrella organisation which removes the barriers and provides support to migrants and refugees wishing to enter the food industry as business owners.”

“Today in Australia we’re able to get a coffee on the street and not much else. Sadly we lag behind Asia, North and South America as well as Europe when it comes to food we can buy on the street,” the Street Food Australia Facebook page says.

Street Food Australia want to facilitate the growth of this new Australian movement by providing a ‘go to’ place for information, and a virtual place to connect.”

8. Swags for Homeless

Swags for Homeless has a social enterprise that sells innovative camping products to fund its goal of providing “dignity to homeless turned away from shelter”. Its signature product, the Backpack Bed, is an award-winning, lightweight single-person tent that folds into a backpack and even includes a built-in camp mat.

The Backpack Bed was designed by Swags for Homeless founders Tony and Lisa Clark, who originally planned to distribute them to homeless people around Australia. But during a fundraising campaign, they realised there was a commercial opportunity too.

“The general public demanded to buy the Backpack Bed for themselves,” the website says.

“As a result Swags for Homeless expanded our fundraising model to include social enterprise.”

It’s gone on to win the 2011 Australian Human Rights award for best Community Organisation, while the Backpack Bed has won awards around the world, including the prestigious Red Dot Best of the Best award.

9. Thank You

It started with water, but now Thank You offers a whole range of consumer products including muesli, snack bars and cosmetics.


A photo posted by Thankyou (@thankyougroup) on

The Thank You website says its a “consumer movement that empowers you to fund life-changing projects through simple choices in your everyday life.”

“1.4 billion people in our world live in extreme poverty. Meanwhile Australians spend hundreds of millions of dollars every year on bottled water, food, soap and other consumer goods,” it says.

“What if purchasing these everyday products could provide life-changing solutions to people in need? This is why we exist.”

Profits from Thank You purchases go toward financing specific projects all around the world, with profits from each of its product categories going to similar projects. So if you buy a bottle of Thank You water, for example, it will go towards a safe water solution project in regions like Cambodia, India, Kenya and Haiti.

Each product sold also features a unique code so that you can Track Your Impact on the Thank You site and see what kind of difference you have made by buying their products.

10.University Co-Operative Bookshop

Well known to almost all university students in Australia, the University Co-Operative Bookshop (aka The Co-Op) is actually Australia’s largest member-owned retailer, with 1.8 million members and 55+ stores.

As a co-operative, all of the profits made are returned to members through exclusive discounts and sponsorship or other financial support for campus activities.

“When you shop at the Co-op, you are supporting an Australian company, as well as university campuses and wider communities,” the website says.

“Through scholarships and sponsorships at all of our campuses, we are able to support our student Members in their studies by providing more than just textbooks.”

As well as supporting on-campus activities, the Co-Op is involved in AIME – a mentoring program that partners Indigenous high school students with university with the objective “to increase Year 10, Year 12 and university admission rates for all Indigenous Australian students who participate”.

11. Whole Kids

Whole Kids sells certified organic food products aimed at kids, or “yummy good food for happy little tummies” as the website says. But founders Monica and James Meldrum say they wanted to be different to businesses that are focused on profits without any consideration for their “impact on communities and the environment, and how they treated their customers and suppliers”.

“We believe in the interconnectedness and interdependence of all things in the world, and that everything we do in some way impacts our relationship with each other, our communities and our environment,” they say.

“We will strive to make a real and positive difference to children’s health, our environment and social equity. In areas where we may not be able to help, we will at least do no harm.”

To this end, Whole Kids has set up the Whole Kids Small Seeds Community Grants Program. The program uses profits from their products to offer support to grassroots organisations and groups that are “working hard in their local communities to improve children’s health and wellbeing through innovative and impactful projects”.

12. 12 x 12

With a name like 12 x 12, it’s apt to have this social enterprise rounding out the list. This is actually the first permanent social enterprise precinct in Australia, showcasing 12 socially aware and philanthropic retailers for 12 weeks before welcoming another 12 into the space.

As Pro Bono Australia reported when 12 x 12 first opened:

“All of the products in the store are provided by socially aware retailers who use part of their profits to give back to society,” it says, outlining a range of products including bags, vintage clothes, vinyl records and homewares.

12 x 12 is housed in Melbourne’s Donkey Wheel House, an ethical and social enterprise hub, and was founded in collaboration with Pop Union.

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