Okay, let’s come straight to the question: Is social business a valid idea? I am not talking about social business here in the sense that a business has a networked instead of a hierarchical organization, or in terms of how they use social media to interact with customers, but simply, a business that does social good or even is completely grounded in social work.
Personally I was very excited about such a concept of ‘social business/entrepreneurship’, but now I’m more skeptical if not critical. Who knows whether this idea is not another stunt for personal or corporate publicity (Sorry if someone is offended; don’t take it personally), or just an invention to make the entrepreneurs themselves feel better? Well, let’s look at two examples.
Here is the scenario: you are standing at the counter in Starbucks, or McDonald’s if you are one of those (I am both-“-) waiting for the change for your latte or cheese burger. You look around and your eyes fall on the little donation box in front of you. At this time you get your change back. What do you do? Or in another case, you walk into the shop to buy a drink and you see this:
What do you do?
Sometimes I leave the 1p, or 5p, or 50p change, that is when I just happen to feel good or when I am too ashamed to take the 1p into my pocket and leave kids in Africa starving (again no offense!)…I don’t usually wonder where the money actually goes, nor have I actually given this whole donation thing serious thought, until yesterday I got stopped by someone from a non-profit research organization when I walked out of a Costa and he tried to get me to make an on-spot text donation, saying ‘it’s just 3 pounds; it’s cheaper than a coffee in there’. And I thought: hang on a minute, where is all this going?
So I sat down and started to think about this charity and philanthropy thing in relation to consumerism. Certainly I’m not the only one who has, or is made to have (as in the above case) a bad conscience when consuming. But it seems something different in the consumer society is evolving, which can lead to what Adam Arvidsson and Nicolai Peitersen considers as an ‘ethical economy' where 'the measurement of intangible value is related to the ability of a company to act as a virtuous global citizen', or what Slavoj Žižek calls an 'ultimate form of consumerism' (in a much more critical and cynical way) where 'the price for the countermeasure, for fighting consumerism is already included into the price of a commodity, like you pay a little bit more and you are not just a consumerist but you do also your duty towards environment, the poor starving people in Africa…'
(Watch the full film here: The Pervert’s guide to Ideology; below is RSA’s animated version of the similar idea by Žižek.)
So is Starbucks a ‘virtuous global citizen’? Is it the new way for economy to go? In the meantime, what is the way for traditional NGOs and charity organizations? Leaving those as open questions, let’s turn to have a look at social business in China.
#Social business in China
In one of my previous posts—-ICT for Change #1—-I briefly named several social enterprises in China. One of them is BottleDream (technically it is a website that presents successful cases of social enterprises abroad as social business was quite a new idea back in 2011-2012 in China) founded by Kenny Choi (the guy in the photo below; if the picture doesn’t show the link should still work). Examples of those case studies are a ‘Design for the other 90%’ exhibition in New York and the Q Drum project in South Africa. The experience with BottleDream inspired Choi to quit his job as an interactive designer in Tencent QQ and set on a journey to document stories of social innovation and social change by creative young people around the world, with completely crowd-funded money! (For some reason I could not embed the video about him here so just click on the picture and you will be taken to youtube to watch the trailer of the documentary.)
The documentary seems to provide some hope of real-life social entrepreneurship but I use ‘seems’ here because I want to wait till the whole documentary is out to form a more rounded judgement. Choi went back to Guangzhou, the capital of Canton province, and started a co-working space named Yi-Gather (which again is not a new idea in the West but might serve as another example of China’s rising creative sector). It would be interesting in the long term to examine the developing pattern of China’s creative industry and see whether it follows the neo-liberal logic.
 The Ethical Economy-Rethinking Intangible Value. Available at: <http://www.europeanfinancialreview.com/?p=7365>.
 Slavoj Žižek on Starbucks. Available at: <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OHYKN97u2xM>.