New economy ‘influencers’: Three ways social enterprises are shaping capitalism

Social enterprises’ efforts to influence mainstream businesses can help drive the transition to a more sustainable economy, a new report shows. 

Some 96% of Dutch social enterprises aim to actively influence other organisations to act more sustainably, according to research by national network body Social Enterprise NL.

Social Enterprises as Influencers of the Broader Business Community highlights three main models used by social entrepreneurs in the Netherlands to influence the broader business community. “Raising the possible” consists in showing how acting sustainably is viable for all businesses; “raising the desirable” means encouraging consumers, employees and investors to expect more from businesses in terms of values and ethics; and “raising the acceptable” involves raising formal standards and making non-sustainable behaviours unacceptable at governmental and institutional levels.

Some social enterprises have shaped decisions made by major brands. An example is Tony’s Chocolonely, a social enterprise selling ethically sourced chocolate bars which aims to “make 100% slave-free the norm in chocolate”. The company has managed to convince Albert Heijn, the largest supermarket chain in the Netherlands, to become an official ‘mission ally’ – in other words, to adopt the same principles – for its own-label chocolate brand.

As a social entrepreneur, you should think about: Is what you’re doing impactful, or are you merely limiting the damage? 

Albert Heijn committed to Tony’s Open Chain, an open-source platform created by the social enterprise that helps companies ensure their supply chain is free of slavery practices and that cocoa suppliers earn a decent income.

Tony’s Chocolonely also lobbied parlementarians through petitions and open letters to support a bill against child labour in supply chains.



“Real social entrepreneurs want systems to change, transitions that take years, and that can hurt. It is about operating radically differently,” said Arjen Boekhold, former chain director at Tony’s Chocolonely.

“As a social entrepreneur, you should think about: where are you in that landscape, in the system? What do you want to change? Do you want to set up a whole new system, or turn the current system around? Is what you’re doing impactful, or are you merely limiting the damage?”

The report’s authors argue that the positive influence of social enterprises could be further strengthened, and propose a number of ways to achieve this, including by sharing best practices and creating communities and dedicating funding to grow this influence.

Header image: A farmer in Ghana with Tony's Chocolonely bars (credit: Tony's Chocolonely)

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