social delta

Consulting and support for social enterprise in Canada

Tag: upcycling

Making the circular economy economical

We waste a lot in our society.

Perhaps during this time of social isolation you are starting to realize how much we waste. Wasted food. Wasted plastics. Wasted clothing.

The market economy has evolved such that for many products it costs more to fix them than to buy a new one. (yes, I’m talking about you, my electric kettle) It seems that everything that is old, then, is discarded. This is a ridiculous paradigm. A religion of waste.

But there are awesome ideas that are growing as we increasingly acknowledge the old adage that one person’s garbage is another person’s treasure.

Of course, the venerable thrift store has been at the forefront of the retail circular economy for generations; they accept unwanted clothing, magazines, furniture, medical goods, and with a bit of sorting, re-sell (typically) at a modest price anything that seems like it could be sold.

Leading lights in the growing circular economy.

Unbuilders is a company in British Columbia that will unbuild your home. They reclaim everything, including the old growth timbers that were used wantonly at the turn of the 20th century as the forests of BC were cut down to create the buildings of Vancouver. There is money in those timbers, but instead of helicopter logging to get to new (old) forests, they are simply taking the time to remove the nails from wood that has been stored in the walls, rafters, flooring and fixtures of a house for the last 50, 60 or 100 years.

Tool Libraries are showing up across the country. Ottawa, Calgary, Vancouver, Toronto, St. John, St. John’s, and so many more places have active tool libraries. The principle concept is that tools can be borrowed like books. Less buying, more sharing. However, the ethos that drives the people who are creating tool libraries is also creating repair cafes, expert coaching on repair and up cycling, and strong commitments to repairing, or taking apart and recycling old tools.

In Ottawa, STRIDE accepts donations of used medical equipment. They have a team of experts to repair, rebuild, recondition and clean the wheelchairs (both manual and electric), the medical beds, the walkers, and the many assisting devices that are built to last far longer than our frail bodies will. These vital tools for health are then made available at a fraction of the price of new.

What should we expect?

The next logical step is for every business to start building products (homes, tools, cars, food packaging, clothing, etc) with the intent that they can be easily “unbuilt” and that the materials can be reclaimed, reused, repurposed. It is happening in some cases, but it needs to happen more.

Human have the creativity to create amazing products, but even the most ingenious rarely consider the full life cycle of every component part.

Everything should be built so that they can become the inputs for future goods. Why cut down more trees, mine more minerals, or create more polymers when we can conceivably create an ecosystem where any of those inputs can be used multiple times?

What can you do?

If you are an aspiring social entrepreneur, consider looking for waste in our society and design a business around that waste as the principle input into your product. And then…try to design your product so that when it has served its function, it can be easily “unbuilt” to become someone else’s treasure.

Market share equals what to social enterprise?

One key measurement of success in a for-profit business is market share. Does this also apply to a non-profit housing cooperative?  An employment-based catering company?  An up-cycling storefront?

The goal of a social enterprise is to maximize the positive impact on those who benefit from their business: affordable housing to all, new job opportunities for the disenfranchised, tons of diverted waste from landfills.  In many cases, mission maximization can only be achieved by increasing the scale of their business; therefore,  unless the market expands, scaling up means someone else must scale down or be joined.

However, it is almost “un-social enterprise” to be creating a vision in which market share is a goal, or evemarket-share-graphicn plausible. Most social enterprises operate locally, and all work with a social mission that drives them. The thought of putting a for-profit out of business—or even acquiring that company—is likely not in their initial thinking, nor explicitly in their business plan.

But why not? Why shouldn’t a social enterprise seek to minimize competition and/or take customers from another local business? Why wouldn’t they attempt to buy that local business in order to increase their inventory, maximize their social mission, minimize competition, and benefit from economies of scale? There is no imperative to leave your competitors alone when you are a social enterprise.

Of course, it is possible that putting competitors out of business, or challenging their cost structure by using grants to get a competitive advantage, or taking them over in order to employ a disadvantaged segment rather than their existing employees, may have unintended social costs. No social enterprise ought to decrease the employment of others in favor of their “target” population, or diminish the value of for-profit colleagues in the marketplace. Healthy competition is good, arguably even necessary for innovation and improved social outcomes, and seeking market share without recognizing the social costs could potentially jeopardize the net social impact on the community.

Social enterprises are modest by nature, in my experience, and aggressive business practices are seen as unsavoury at best and downright nauseating at worst. However, if increased market share means increased (net) social benefit, then by all means a social enterprise ought to be unabashedly bold in their business aspirations to increase market share.

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