The holiday season is upon us once more and as we prepare shopping lists for presents, it’s easy to forget the true meaning of gift-giving. The exchange of gifts is a way to do good and make someone else feel good too. But once the presents have been unwrapped, we’re often left nearly penniless and have to cut back on expenses and charitable giving until the next paycheck (or the one after that!).  

So wouldn’t it be great if the money we spent on gifts also supported a good cause? That would tick all the boxes: you get a nice present, you make someone happy and you’re contributing to a greater cause – perfect! But how do you do this? That’s where the concept of “buying social” comes in.  When you buy social, you’re supporting a social enterprise.

A social enterprise is a business that trades for a social or environmental purpose. It makes a profit, but here’s the twist – it reinvests this profit into the social or environmental mission that it champions. When you buy from a social enterprise you are helping it to do good and supporting a social cause that you affiliate with. 

Social enterprises impact a wide array of beneficiaries. The best known social enterprise In the UK is the Big Issue which supports homeless people into employment. In that country, social enterprises are becoming ubiquitous: they sell coffee, fashion and telecoms plans and provide personal loans, career counselling and child support services – all this in order to address social problems and reduce inequalities. As a result, buying social in the UK has become second nature for many – all the bottled water served in the UK Parliament, for instance, is bought from a social enterprise.

In this part of the world though, the concept of social enterprise is still settling in people’s minds so convincing consumers to Buy Social will take effort and time. The first step is to raise awareness. To that end, here are some inspiring examples of social enterprises in our region.

In the Philippines, Messy Bessy produces a line of natural and biodegradable household cleaning products that can be found in numerous stores and markets. This social enterprise also employs and trains disadvantaged youths, so it offers its customers the chance to do good both socially and environmentally.

If you’re lucky enough to find yourself in Chiang Mai, Thailand, stop by social enterprise café, Akha Ama and enjoy a fresh cup of organic coffee. Akha Ama stocks coffee beans that have been grown sustainably in orchards owned and tended by the Akha people from the upland Thai village of Maejantai. Their beans are also exported and they compete directly with mainstream coffee brands, underscoring the growth potential for social enterprises. 

The man behind the Biji-biji's bags.
Faces behind MyBakery.

These examples from Thailand and the Philippines illustrate the demand for social enterprise products in East Asia. So why not make buying social a norm here in Malaysia too? We have home-grown social enterprises such as Biji-biji. It encourages sustainable living through reuse of waste materials and sells a line of upcycled products that make fine gifts. By purchasing such products customers are helping Biji-biji not only to create an environmental impact but also to support communities and engage with the general public through talks and workshops. 

If you’re into local crafts, you’ll be spoiled for choice by the Batik Boutique. Using the traditional art of batik textile printing, the Batik Boutique is a social enterprise that provides employment opportunities for women from lower income groups.  

Batik Boutique directly empowers these women by offering them training and good jobs but it also invests a portion of its proceeds into the communities in which these women live.

Food enthusiasts can support social enterprises such as MyBakery. Based in Klang, My Bakery supports disadvantaged, at-risk youths from MySkills Foundation. Proceeds from sales are channelled back into MySkills Foundation for their programmes.

If you hunger for Malay cuisine, consider the Nasi Lemak Project. Named after the popular breakfast dish made of coconut-flavoured rice typically served with peanuts, eggs and cucumber, this social enterprise alleviates poverty by training poor and low-income families to develop their own Nasi Lemak business. It signs purchasing contracts with these individual producers guaranteeing them a steady source of income and then resells the dishes to the general public. All profits are channelled back into training more families and growing the social business.

This is just the tip of the iceberg. There is a growing plethora of social enterprises in Malaysia that we can support now and there are a lot more to come. Indeed, the buzz around social entrepreneurship in Malaysia has increased significantly this year with the release of the Social Enterprise Blueprint in May. The Blueprint paves way for the growth of the sector by developing social entrepreneurs, nurturing eco-systems and institutions. The aim is to create a social enterprise movement that’s backed by the public and private sectors.

The sector’s growth will provide increased opportunities for buying social – whether for personal gifts or corporate procurement. Doing so stretches the value of our purchases and helps deliver positive change and opportunity in our most disadvantaged communities.

So why not start buying social this holiday season – and rediscover the true spirit of giving.