A culinary school that trains individuals with difficulty procuring work; a social enterprise that helps low income workers and entrepreneurs find employment and build their business; a business supply company promoting sustainable operations and local purchasing. These are just a few examples of organizations – HAVE Café, EMBERS and Mills Basics – seeking to change the nature of how we do business  – and who have all recognized their collective goal through Buy Social certification.

Buy Social focuses on purchasing from social enterprises as the path to creating social value. Originally launched by Social Enterprise UK in 2013, Buy Social certifies companies, non-profits, and governments committed to social purchasing guidelines. In Canada, Buy Social Canada launched this past April with a mission of facilitating opportunities in the country for social purchasing. The organization is still in its early stages, yet, by working on social purchasing initiatives with both business and government, Buy Social Canada is quickly leveraging the increasing societal demand for social impact.

David LePage, one of the pioneers of the Canadian iteration, has been part of the social enterprise sector long before it went by that name, including stints at Enterprising Non-Profits and Fast Track to Employment. Currently, he works as Principal at Accelerating Social Impact CCC, with Buy Social Canada his latest project. For him, the organization is “one more tool in a great big marketplace shift initiative” to emphasize not just market efficiency but the creation of social good. The initiative was launched primarily in “recognition of social enterprise as a specific business model that has a really social-driven purpose,” says LePage.

The Buy Social team helps buyers get certified while working with purchasers to create demand for social enterprise supply. To attain certification. suppliers need to demonstrate certain criteria based on the business’s transparency, social impact focus, and stakeholder- rather than shareholder-driven operations. Purchasers, meanwhile, are mainly required to support social impact sellers and systems. The price of certification depends on the size of the business, while the certification itself demonstrates a commitment to creating social impact.

Still, for LePage, what’s most important is the program’s ability to promote broader, long-term processes. “[Buy Social Canada] is really about, how do we start to influence the marketplace? Because the more we drive a marketplace that recognizes social value along with price and quality and environment, we shift the entire marketplace,” he says. To meet that shift, Buy Social Canada has even opened a store in the Downtown Eastside at 112 West Hastings Street, featuring products and services of different Buy Social suppliers.

Although many Buy Social-certified enterprises are small businesses, “we’re starting to see discussions [on social impact] in large corporations,” says LePage. “Specifically for them, it’s looking at diversity in the supply chain.” He cites Michael Porter and Mark Kramer’s Shared Value Initiative, arguing, “If you look at what shared value is trying to say to the corporate world, it’s shifting.”

Several governments have also expressed interest in Buy Social Canada as a means of increasing their commitment to social purchasing. In British Columbia, the municipality of Cumberland was the first to sign onto Buy Social Canada and later that month, the city of Vancouver endorsed the initiative, encouraging its staff to investigate certification.

For LePage, such government commitments are sensible given the times. With shrinking budgets and growing demands, government is recognizing that with every purchase, they can add a social value and potentially leverage their impact. “If they can start to look at things like community benefit agreements, and adding a social component to the evaluation of bids, they start to leverage all of their funding to have a social value,” he says. “So rather than social spending to be in a ministry, social value becomes a component of all government spending.”

These ideas continue to gain traction in Canada. You can find it in the publication of the social impact purchasing guidelines by the Ministry of Social Development and Social Innovation in British Columbia or in Ontario’s examination of the social impact of their infrastructure investment. Manitoba implemented a social enterprise strategy, while cities like Toronto have guidelines for social procurement.

Yet LePage recognizes that these efforts –  at the early beginning of a paradigm shift –  still have ways to go. For governments, their willingness to prioritize these guidelines will be what demonstrates their commitment to social purchasing. For the business sector, efforts rest on the integration of a social consciousness into the very heart of markets. “I don’t think it’s a mass market at this time, but I think we’re at a point of learning and experimenting and trying to prove out the business case and best practices.”

Julia Bugiel studies political science and international development at McGill University with a special focus on the link between cultural and political institutions. In addition to her work as a SEE Change intern, she contributes to several university publications and is an avid reader of many more.


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