The growth of Scotland's CICs: 'You don't have to make a choice between making money or doing good'
- David Kirkwood
- 17 April 2019
A look at the balancing act community interest companies in Scotland's food industry perform trying to turn a profit while giving something meaningful back to communities
Community interest companies (CICs) are essentially limited companies that want to use their profits for some form of public good. Since they came into existence in 2005, more than 10,000 have been established in the UK, all with the ostensible purpose of creating and benefitting a socially inclusive economy. Like other corporate structures, they aim to be successful by turning profit. But what they do with those profits is fundamentally different. How they define success is, too.
'I actually think more and more people are disillusioned with profit for its own sake,' suggests Maria Ashley from Edinburgh-based organisation Firstport, who assist anyone with an idea for a social enterprise with their first steps. 'You don't have to make a choice between making money or doing good,' she says, 'those two aren't mutually exclusive.' Consumers have also become increasingly discerning about the ethics of the companies they give their business to. Hence the swelling number of CICs over the past 24 months.
The one everybody knows is Social Bite, the sandwich shop in Edinburgh's Rose Street that's now expanded into Glasgow and Aberdeen, using all profits to address homelessness. Customers are able to leave money for a homeless person to have a coffee or a roll, and the business allows people affected by homelessness to work in their shops, or assist them through their academy. A certain George Clooney has famously visited and lent his support to their cause. Glasgow's Locavore is another firmly established example, with a farm, shop, café and veg box scheme, all of which further their purpose of building a more sustainable food system that's healthier and fairer than the mainstream ones.
These stories are well-documented, but there are so many others of equal significance out there. In Glasgow's city centre, the Project Café focuses on a socially inclusive events programme that runs almost nightly – anything from a harp concert to a fully accessible comedy night to potluck evenings for various communities. This is facilitated by a vibrant vegetarian café that uses local produce to create Middle Eastern-inspired dishes. Eilidh McKay and her team work at the Project Café work with the mantra of 'Good Food Bringing Good People Together' which has a beautiful simplicity to it, and works.
Meanwhile, the Southside of Glasgow has become a real hub for CICs – count them up and you quickly run out of fingers, and that's just on Victoria Road, a street that for over half a century has reflected Glasgow's multiculturalism, with numerous immigrant populations settling there. No one engages more with this than Milk, a coffee shop that helps migrant and refugee women integrate into society. 'Employment and empowerment', as founder Angela Ireland puts it. Women can work in the café, learning skills they otherwise wouldn't have the opportunity to. And those who pass through influence the food as well. 'At first we had a lot of women from Eritrea and Sudan,' says Ireland, 'so for lunch we found ourselves serving things like tsebhi, an Eritrean stew. But more recently we've had a Palestinian supper, a Lithuanian dinner and a Russian vegan night.' Food, and the shared eating experience, are great vessels for inclusivity and diversity.
'This is a better style of business for more and more people,' explains Rachel Smillie of the Glad Café, where they fund free and affordable music lessons and workshops for the underprivileged. 'At the heart of most social enterprises, you'll find someone who cares about their community,' she says. Glad was one of the first places in town to embrace the kitchen takeover model, where pop-ups run the food for a period of time – because CICs like the ones above still seek to be the best cafés they can be. They seek the same custom with the same margins, but their decisions are guided by an altogether more moral compass.
Back in Edinburgh, Breadshare's mission is 'real bread for everyone', which means they promote the merits of organic bread in a way that is sustainable and engages with the community. It's made through slow fermentation and without additives. Such baking is considerably more nutritious (and digestible) than that which lines our supermarket shelves. It's typically more expensive, too, but Breadshare keep the prices as low as possible to make it as widely accessible as possible. Again: decisions made with a different set of priorities from what we've come to expect in the business world.
The most satisfying combination of 'grassroots' and 'blue sky' comes from Ed McCardy's Corylus Horticulture in Edinburgh, which seeks to inspire young people to grow plants and get involved in local horticulture, including a plant nursery that specialises in edible plants. They currently work with three local schools and aim to make as many gardens in the city edible and insect-friendly.
Chat to anyone involved in the the CIC scene and you're likely to be struck by their drive and their ethics – but also their grasp of the realities of running a sustainable business. CICs combine the practical and the ideal in a refreshing way. They often feed you very well, too.