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Switch your soap for social good

20 October 2017

A number of firms are diverting part of their procurement spend towards buying products that have a positive social impact. Catherine Hackett visited CLARITY-The Soap Co., which employs blind, visually impaired, disabled and otherwise disadvantaged people who manufacture a range of body care soaps, cleaning products and toiletries, to explore why

Social enterprises are businesses that give something back, reinvesting their profits to address the most pressing issues, from homelessness and unemployment to ethical trade and climate change. Buying social is about using your money as an individual or an organisation, to create a positive impact on the world we live in. And it's gaining traction as businesses begin to take their sustainability responsibilities more seriously – both from a social capital and environmental perspective. 

A wide range of everyday and luxury soaps - as well as cleaning products and toiletries - from CLARITY-The Soap Co., the UK's oldest social enterprise, are now being used in the offices of some of the country's leading corporations and organisations including: PwC, Santander and Zurich, plus hotel chains and venues including the Olympic Park.

It follows last year’s commitment from seven major UK companies to spend £1 billion with social enterprises by 2020 as part of the government’s Buy Social Corporate Challenge. As part of this initiative, FM provider Interserve also placed an environmentally friendly 'eco' foaming hand wash from CLARITY-The Soap Co. into the cabinet office earlier this year.

Other large corporations and Buy Social Corporate Challenge partners are planning to support the initiative by purchasing this eco-friendly hand wash, while several government departments are set to switch to the new CLARITY-The Soap Co. range. These partnerships have the potential to create hundreds of days of employment per year for CLARITY-The Soap Co. that ploughs all profits back into jobs for people who really need them.

Why buy social?

Founded in 1854, registered charity CLARITY-The Soap Co., trains, supports and employs blind, visually impaired, disabled and otherwise disadvantaged people who manufacture a range of products from luxurious and more everyday soaps and hand sanitiser to washing-up liquid. The social enterprise reinvests all of its revenues back into the business to keep the 100-plus part-time factory and office staff in stable employment, providing over 10,000 hours of employment a year.

Some staff have never worked before joining CLARITY-The Soap Co. The organisation provides not only an income but also a sense of belonging to a real community, as well as the opportunity to bring out each individual's potential. During its history, CLARITY-The Soap Co. has empowered many thousands of people with disabilities to build skills, confidence and independence in its friendly and supportive workplace.

"Organisations want to work with us because of our social mission. It's not just about cutting costs but about supply chain responsibility," marketing manager Diane Cheung says during my visit to their factory and head offices in Highams Park, East London.

Considering actions in terms of their social impact has become a growing trend. The Government officially recognised this with the Social Value Act 2012 that requires public bodies to consider choosing providers that provide social value.

But a robust Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) policy – a company's sense of responsibility towards the community and environment (both ecological and social) in which it operates – can also yield business benefits by boosting a company's reputation and consequently its bottom line.

According to CLARITY-The Soap Co., a business that improves its ethical and sustainable credentials will see staff engagement and retention improve as a consequence, as well as customer loyalty.

"It attracts talent when organisations buy ethical products," Cheung says. This is backed up by statistics from the Cone Millennial Cause Group that state that 80% of young people want to work for a company that is ethical. An Ipsos Mori poll also found that 84% of customers believe that companies should do more for society.

"Improved CSR agendas are also linked to improved business revenue and profitability," Cheung says. "We know there is a consumer demand: customers are really starting to care about where the product is coming from."

CLARITY-The Soap Co. has developed a Social Value Pricing structure that enables it to calculate the number of employment hours generated for disabled people through the contracts it delivers, and share that social impact with businesses that work with them. It also supports clients with communications such as stickers and a story frame about CLARITY-The Soap Co. to show staff and visitors to the washrooms.

Innovation and inclusion

All soap and toiletry products are manufactured by CLARITY-The Soap Co. in the UK. As well as its main factory in Highams Park, where approximately 10,000 units are made each day, there is also a workshop and high street shop in Keswick.

CLARITY-The Soap Co. began manufacturing toiletries and soap products around 80 years ago but only entered the B2B market two years ago, supplying products from its brands CLARITY and The Soap Co. directly to FM companies as well as through distributors such as Bunzl and Jangro. The CLARITY brand is designed for everyday use while The Soap Co. is suited to luxury executive washrooms.

Walking onto the factory floor, we pass through warehouse racking to the laboratory where new products are being developed. Next door, liquids are being mixed with sweet-smelling perfume and colouring in large vats to produce liquid soap. This is then fed into the production line to be poured into bottles; fill rates and labels are then checked and pumps screwed on. On another production line, long tubes of hard soap come out of a machine to be cut up into bars and packaged by hand.

The mix of manual and automated manufacturing processes strike a balance between creating employment and maintaining efficiency. Ten to 20 people are involved in every product: roles are rotated and adjusted to fit various disabilities, with visually impaired staff making up around 40%.

Camilla Marcus-Dew, head of commercial, says: "Staff can change roles to create variety and also for the social element as you get to meet different people. Some people may not be physically disabled but require more emotional support. It's about nurturing each person through the process."

Half of those employed at CLARITY stay here as a job for life. The other 50% transition onto full-time employment elsewhere with the help of CLARITY-The Soap Co.’s social workers.

Allan is a team leader and has worked at CLARITY-The Soap Co. for nine years. He has been visually impaired since he was 10 months old. "Working for CLARITY-The Soap Co. has improved my confidence a lot," he says. "I've been allowed to be myself and I don't have to hide my eye condition now as a lot of people are in the same position as I am, so I feel more relaxed and not so stressed."

The future

Clarity-The Soap Co. has recently strengthened its offering with three new fragrances in its environmentally friendly range, CLARITYeco. The first product in this range – the eco-foaming hand wash – is made with 100% eco-certified vegan ingredients, is biodegradable and free from allergens, gluten and GMO. The foaming hand wash uses just 20% of the dosage compared to the liquid alternative so will last five times as long and requires 10% less water.

CLARITY-The Soap Co.’s commitment to minimising the impact it has on the environment – from its manufacturing process to the ingredients it chooses – is highlighted by the fact that it holds the Planet Mark and has pledged to reduce CO2 emissions by 5% year on year.

"People in CSR tend to turn more to environmentally friendly products rather than socially responsible products, due to a lack of awareness," Camilla says. "But you can't have one without the other. Consumers want both: products that are good for the planet and which are ethically made – and we can offer both."

Looking ahead, large facilities management providers will be key to CLARITY-The Soap Co. being able to provide stable employment to its workers.

"All companies have CSR objectives, and by buying from us they get a quality product and get to give something back in return," Camilla concludes. "Switching your hand wash is a small change to make but it can have a huge ripple effect through society."