Change Please… And Change Now

Change Please champions considerate coffee while tackling homelessness in the UK

After working in London as a sales director, Cemal Ezel needed a change. While travelling in Vietnam, he came across a silent teahouse run by a deaf and mute woman. The teahouse functioned as a profitable business at the same time as providing a livelihood to employees who would otherwise struggle to make a wage.

Returning to England, Ezel saw both London’s homelessness epidemic and the city’s booming coffee culture, and began to wonder if the nation’s caffeine habit could in some way help to curb homelessness. In 2015, Change Please was born. 

Spare change for social change

Homelessness has reached a record high in the UK, with an estimated 4,000 people sleeping rough every night. Homeless people often can’t find employment, suffer disproportionate rates of mental illnesses and struggle to break the cycle of poverty. Even if they can work, keeping a job while living on the streets is a near-impossible task.

At the same time, coffee consumption in the UK has experienced a universal increase. According to the British Coffee Association, the UK now drinks 95 million cups a day. Ezel’s lateral thinking was to take the inspiration of the Vietnamese teahouse and use this insatiable demand to fund a life-saving social enterprise. 

“It came out of frustration really,” says Ezel. “As a member of the public, you don’t really know what to do when you see homeless people on the street. Do you give them money, or do you just keep walking? My thought was to try and solve the problem through business. Coffee demand is growing daily. If we could give homeless people the opportunity to be trained as baristas and coffee roasters, then they have a way back into society.” 

Of course, it’s not quite as simple as that. Baristas are hired and trained based on referrals from Change Please’s voluntary sector partners. They then undertake a month-long training and selection process, after which they are paid the London Living Wage (£10.55) as set out by the Living Wage Foundation. Change Please provides all housing and banking needs, as well as offering each person critical mental health support. 

This isn’t just an intrinsically good thing to do – there’s an economic advantage too. Due to their difficult living conditions, homeless people are more likely to suffer from physical and mental health problems, which places increased pressure on health services and drains resources. Reduce the number of homeless people by even a few people and the overall health of society is also improved.

Change Please coffee is supplied by farms that support those in need in their local communities – one supplier in Peru helps victims of domestic abuse while a Tanzanian farm aids people with landmine injuries. Blockchain technology makes sure that farmers are paid fairly and securely. Once the coffee reaches the UK, it is roasted and sold.

As well as serving people – in all senses of the word – Change Please also serves the planet. To encourage the mass shift to sustainability, baristas hand over coffee in 100% biodegradable cups.

The rise of the social enterprise

According to government estimates, there are currently around 55,000 social enterprises in the UK[1], contributing a combined £8.4bn to the UK economy. Social enterprise now makes up three percent of the UK’s GDP which, says Ezel, is three times as much as the agricultural sector. One of the reasons behind this is the reconciliation they bring between profit and purpose. Another factor is that customers want to be seen as citizens rather than consumers: they want to use their spending power to support more than just the economy.

Equally, a new generation of entrepreneurs has recognised the importance of meeting the sustainability agenda, demonstrating corporate social responsibility and thinking about the wider problems that their company could address. This has culminated in a pivotal shift in businesses operations – so much so that the traditional model of product-for-profit is making way for product-for-purpose.

“When I talk to graduates and students, they aren’t just expecting to go into business,” Ezel says. “Traditional job titles are not really sought after – they want to be social entrepreneurs. Whether you’re in business or in government, social enterprise is becoming a far more important part of our economy. We can’t rely on the government to do everything. If businesses can do good at the same time, then it’s a no brainer.”

The challenges of conscious coffee

Running a social enterprise isn’t easy, given the perception that product quality and business acumen may fall short of the mark. Delivering a purpose is traditionally seen to detract from commercial considerations, compromising the end product or service. 

“I think the biggest challenge is stereotypes – that if you’re a social business, you’re automatically going to have a lower level quality product,” says Ezel. “The first thing people say when they hear about what we do is, ‘That’s great, but is the quality any good?’, and they would never ask that in a normal situation.”

Other challenges surround integrity. It may be necessary, for example, for social enterprises to partner with organisations that don’t necessarily share their values. Keeping a clear focus on the purpose of the organisation is vital. This is much easier, of course, when your employees directly benefit from it.

In order to help as many people as possible, social enterprises need to be commercially successful. A firm focus on product quality saw Change Please top the ‘best coffee’ category in the World Beverage Innovation Awards 2016, as well as take home Great Taste awards in both 2017 and 2018.

In addition to their street-side vans, Change Please has found a home in a number of office buildings, including UBS, Grant Thomas, and WeWork. In November 2018, a kiosk was opened at Clapham Common tube station, with plans to do the same at other Underground locations. The social enterprise is also taking its product overground in a partnership with Virgin Trains. The quality of Change Please’s product and branding was further confirmed when leading supermarket Sainsbury’s began selling three of its coffee blends.

Serving coffee, serving purpose

As consumer demand for purposeful products reaches an all-time high, organisations that deliver a social benefit are attracting more and more interest. Change Please exemplifies the success that can come from using a commercial opportunity to solve a genuine problem. The social enterprise enables customers to fund both their caffeine habits and social good at the same time. It isn’t just about making money – it’s about making change. 

Cemal Ezal from Change Please is speaking at this year’s Disruption Summit Europe – don’t miss out! Get your tickets today!