Social Enterprise, made in France – helping people and planet?

Spatial planning, at its best, can facilitate sustainable development. Planning policies, however, are no silver bullet for the implementation of sustainable development goals. Where spatial planning might sometimes fall short of leveraging solutions on the ground, the emerging trend of social enterprise can provide much-needed bottom-up solutions to complex socio-economic and environmental problems. Social entreprise: helping to save people and planet? A snapshot of French social enterprises. 

Give me five Agostino Iacurci on ArtVibes
“Give me five!”: social enterprises help to reconnect people by addressing social, economic, health and environmental issues. Art credit: street art by Agostino Iacurci, photo source:, Creative Commons license 2.0 Attribution.

Social enterprise is an emerging trend across the world. Social Enterprise UK (“the leading global authority on social enterprise”), describes social enterprises as: “Businesses that are changing the world for the better…  Social enterprises are in our communities and on our high streets – from coffee shops and cinemas, to pubs and leisure centres, banks and bus companies. By selling goods and services in the open market, social enterprises create employment and reinvest their profits back into their business or the local community. This allows them to tackle social problems, improve people’s life chances, provide training and employment opportunities for those furthest from the market, support communities and help the environment” [emphasis added].

In short, social enterprises seek innovative solutions in nearly all sectors of society, tackling such diverse issues as mental health and education to food and ecological consumables. Social enterprise may bring ethical focus on leveraging particular products/services, as well as in the manner in which they do so (e.g. they might function as cooperatives). This said, because there are many different forms of social enterprises, it is virtually impossible to provide a definitive or authoritative definition that captures the diversity and complexity of the trend. Nonetheless, a key defining factor might well be that long-term financial viability may often be more difficult to achieve than for commercial enterprises.

France, like many other countries, has its fair share of economic, social and environmental issues to deal with. Here is a glimpse of the kinds of social enterprises that are mushrooming across the country and try to square the circle of sustainable development. They are classified by theme.

Intergenerational ties

We may not be getting wiser, but we are definitely getting older. Aging populations now affect both post-industrial and developing countries. At the same time, both younger and older people suffer from isolation. To help remedy this situation, a number of French social enterprises are helping to recreate intergenerational ties, for example through one-to-one teaching and food.

Les Talent d’Alphonse connects retired people who want to share their skills and knowledge with young people. One-to-one and small-group tuition is available for a range of practical skills, including languages, music and photography, charged at 15 euros per hour. Mostly clustered around Paris and Lille, the digital platform may well expand to other French cities, given the impressively wide media coverage which they have received.

Paupiette builds on the idea that young people deserve to have a proper lunch cooked by individuals who could well be their own grandparents, and that grandparents should enjoy the company of young people who could well be their own grandchildren. The French culture of food as a social experience helping, Paupiette is fresh out of the social entreprise oven in Bordeaux. The idea deserves to be developed further and exported.

Upcycling – turning waste into gold

Did you know that a third of all food produced in the world for human consumption is lost or wasted? Here are more detailed eye-opening facts and stats about food waste from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization – FAO.

Based in Paris, Les Alchimistes collects food waste from restaurants and food stores to make compost – which really entails re-creating value from a resource that would otherwise end up in a landfill. They use a simple yet innovative composting technology that does not emit any foul smell, noise or visual disturbance. The compost is then used by urban farmers and gardeners.

Commown’s vision is to convert digital tech to long-term sustainability by promoting long-lasting products and avoiding planned obsolescence. Functioning as a cooperative, Commown encourages owners of digital devices to lease them to others, with the entreprise providing maintenance service, thereby creating income and reuse of devices that would otherwise be discarded and are still often dismantled in subprime social and environmental conditions. Although not impacting the actual design of devices as yet, they aim to help push the digital industry toward the adoption of “Fair” devices (e.g. the fully ethical Fairphone), based on a co-ownership model.

MéGo ! recycles cigarette butts into plastic elements that can be assembled into furniture. It aims to operate as a national waste collection programme, and provides fit-for-purpose ash tray elements or even street fixtures for organisations wishing to be active parts of the collection programme. It would almost make smoking environmentally friendly…

Not a social entreprise per se, the association Carton Plein reuses removal cardboards and provide modest, low-carbon removal services by giving jobs to unemployed people from various backgrounds. All removals are loaded onto low-tech but highly efficient bicycle trailers and pulled by bicycle power and plenty of elbow grease (or knee grease to be more accurate). Their complete service thereby helps combat socio-economic exclusion as well as air pollution and premature wastage or recycling. Could the model become a social entreprise business model?

Emmaüs is a famous charity and community that recruits jobless individuals from all backgrounds through a widespread network of second-hand stores. Their new digital platform, Label Emmaüs, puts that network online. Nothing fancy, but it does is enable a charity with a clear social purpose to compete with the likes of eBay, and functions as a kind of Argos for second-hand, vintage items. As not all the items in their specialised second-hand shops get to be sold, the platform enables the quicker distribution and sale of their stock, thereby taking the second-hand charity “enterprise” to a higher level. Vintage items range from furniture and interior decoration to fashion, books and multimedia.

Urban farming

Topager is a small company that designs and delivers urban rooftop farms and gardens, founded in 2013, enabling to produce food as well as contribute to alleviate environmental pollution. In the words of co-founder Nicolas Bel in an interview with the newspaper Le Monde, economic productivity can be found even among the most unlikely urban denizens: “For me, an earthworm is a kind of micro-factory that digs tunnels and produces fertiliser”. He adds: “An intern once told me that I viewed ecosystems as machines. He was quite right.” Check out their impressive portfolio, including their submission for the 2024 Olympic village in Paris.

Using vacant urban space

Branding itself as a “cooperative for temporary urbanism”, Plateau Urbain transforms the concept of squatting vacant buildings into a cooperative provider of temporary spaces for various uses, particularly artistic and cultural events. Fully legit, the cooperative provides its expertise to local councils, architects and property owners who want to make use of vacant properties. They have been active in several French cities.

Start-up coaching for social entrepreneurs

Even those who train social entrepreneurs to define and launch their businesses can be social entrepreneurs in their own right. Here are a few start-ups that help others create their own social enterprise start-ups.

Switch Collective‘s business model is premised on the observation that 91% of French employees do not enjoy what they do for a living. As a start up, Switch Collective help people to align their career with their life goals. Many of their clients seem to launch social entreprises.

Here are additional resources (in French) to find out about opportunities and trends regarding social entreprises and alternative economic models in France and beyond.

Unleashing the craft-maker within

WeCanDoo is a young start-up that supports crafts-people by providing collective workhops. Newbies can also attend courses and choose from a wide range of crafts. In turn, upskilling can provide additional sources of income for keen learners, not to mention plentiful opportunities for useful creative expression.

Hearty enterprises – restoring faith in business values?

In sum, it seems that consumerist capitalism does not necessarily have to consume us all on the stake of social and ecological collapse. People and planet are tightly connected, and need to be addressed together. Perhaps social enterprise can help steer relentless capital accumulation and creative destruction toward a brighter, more equitable and less predatory future. Michael Porter, professor at the Harvard Business School and founder of multiple non-profits, argues boldly that business can best solve social problems not the public or third sectors alone. Social businesses, funded by microcredit schemes such as the ones kick-started by Muhammad Yunus, have also enabled entrepreneurs in developing countries to take off. Business models grounded on a circular economy perspective also have better chances of generating wealth by addressing acute environmental needs. Social enterprises have the potential to bring the heart back into business, much beyond the veneer of corporate social responsibility. Let us hope that social and environmental stewardship becomes the next norm in the world of economic ventures, so that changing our communities for the better will no longer require going against the grain.


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