Social Enterprise and the Environment
My political experience and way of thinking, developed over many years, proved very useful back in 1998, when I started up the Institute for Sustainable Development in Business. One of the things that became very obvious, very quickly, dealing with environmental business issues was that Social Enterprises have the potential to have a much bigger positive effect on the environment than more conventional business models, largely because of their tendency to treat issues more holistically than is generally the case with a conventional business approach.
Let me try and expand on this idea with three examples recently in the news, starting with the example that caught my eye from yesterday`s Guardian, which prompted this post. It was one of a number of stories paid for by the Skoll Foundation promoting social entrepreneurship. Jeff Skoll was one of the founders of Ebay, so found himself to be pretty wealthy at a pretty early age, and when he launched his charitable foundation it soon became clear to him that social entrepreneurs could have a distinctly positive effect on the world too.
As I said in my last post there are significant negative health impacts including potentially many premature deaths from excess heat, but it is not just humans that are vulnerable to extreme weather events. Crops, too may suffer from drought, excessive rain or whatever may turn up unexpectedly – and THEN humans suffer too, especially in less developed countries where a large percentage of the population is probably tied into agriculture as a major `industry`.
One of the social enterprises supported by the Skoll Foundation is now using modern technology to put support directly into the hands of smallholder farmers, using mobile phones and satellite technology. Forecasting weather in their local areas and sending messages directly to the smallholders about when it is going to rain or when there might be a long spell without rain helps them plan and act and react more quickly than hitherto.
As the article says – “In developing countries, a far higher proportion of people (often between 50% and 90%) are directly engaged in agriculture; and it is this close connection with the land and its yield that puts them on the frontline in the battle against climate change. They are subsistence farmers, with few of the protections of a well-established, high-functioning economy (such as early warning systems, high-tech interventions, or insurance payouts) that tend to make climate change easier to deal with – at least in the short to medium term.”
The thing about Social Enterprises is that, as well as taking a more holistic view, as I already mentioned, they are actually “Social”, in the sense of putting people at the heart of their operations, instead of attempting to maximise profits. It is this “satisficing” approach that can often make the difference for small scale operators and those who are often marginalised. This is, of course, nothing new! The Skoll Foundation may be making a difference with their support and assistance with modern technology, but the primary factors were clearly recognised back in the day within the manifesto of the Liberal Ecology Group published in 1978.
The following policy headings were all included in the LEG manifesto and were also in the Liberal manifesto of that era too
a) Encouraging, especially by easing planning controls, the development of appropriate rurally-based crafts, industries and other commercial activities, including small-scale tourism.
b) Making more land available for smallholdings.
c) Setting up a Land Bank to help smallholders and co-ops.
None of these actually make reference to the term “Social Enterprise” because that did not apparently appear in print until 1981 in a publication by Freer Spreckley – “Social Audit – A Management Tool for Co-operative Working”. What I am not sure about is whether there is any family link between Freer Spreckly and David Spreckley who fought the 1966 Cambridge by-election for the Liberals and was, as far as I can remember, an original member of the Liberal Ecology Group (it will have to wait until I get back to England to check the membership records for LEG!)
I mentioned earlier about three examples. My second example is a fairly young Social Enterprise, run by three young friends who grew up and now run their enterprise in Washington DC. They call themselves “Up Top Acres” and have partnered with building owners, restaurants and local community groups to create rooftop farms in Washington (https://uptopacres.com/)
This caught my eye because many years ago, even before I was running the Institute for Sustainable Development in Business, I sat on a Nottingham Trent University Committee that was “greening” the University and the building I worked in had a flat roof ideal for development into a Green Roof. The University spent the money to lay down the necessary covering to make the roof waterproof and available for being “greened”, but somewhere along the line, I fear the money ran out, or, more likely one of the senior decision makers chose to spend it somewhere else and the project never came to life.
It was one of the small regrets in my life that I was not able to make this project happen. Clearly at that point I did not have the ear of the appropriate decision maker, so my congratulations go out to the three who made their farm project happen in Washington. The great benefits of a rooftop are of course the openness to the weather – rain and sun both being needed for growth of course – and there are distinct benefits for the building owners, since the green activity helps to protect the roof coverings from degradation in the very same weather of sun and rain which helps crops grow!
Additionally, the slowing of water run-off, by using it to go through the crops means that the urban environment has a reduced requirement for drainage. There is the further benefit of carbon dioxide sequestration and oxygen formation from the crops themselves. To be honest it is environmentally a no-brainer, BUT it does require people working together to make it happen.
The people who generally own the rooftops are not farmers and farmers do not generally have easy access to the roofs. And the roof owners will not get paid for the extra oxygen and the sequestration of carbon, unless the community provides at least modest financial incentives to make it happen. And THAT, it appears, was the trigger for the success of the Up Top Acres approach, because their local authority was offering subsidies for roof-top greening. Seems to me like a pretty good Liberal Democratic idea, but we do have to be in power in a local authority or, at least, to be holding the balance of power to make the initiative available and enthusiastic enough to make it work.
The third example is best approached by viewing the TED talk of the guy who came up with and implemented the idea for this example, David Katz, from Vancouver in Canada. He and his business partners have created the notion of “Social Plastic” and linked it to a blockchain protected Plastic Bank, where recycled plastic is the central currency and the bank`s primary customers are the recyclers themselves.
Katz explains that clearing up the plastic waste which has made it to the Ocean really should not be the first priority. His analogy is of walking into the kitchen and the sink is overflowing madly pouring water onto the floor. Your first instinct, he argues, is that you should first turn off the tap, before you start madly mopping the floor, otherwise you are wasting your effort. So his idea was to make it more viable for potential recyclers of plastics to make a real living doing the recycling BEFORE the plastic made its way to the rivers and thence into the sea – “shutting the tap off”. It is certainly a story worth following up and you may be able to offset YOUR plastic footprint by making a donation to the organisation. This will add value to the Social Plastic, thus enabling the recyclers to get better value for the plastic they collect. The “blockchain” link is a way of paying the recyclers safely without giving them the risk of having cash which can easily be stolen from them. They get paid directly into their own electronic bank account, accessible only by themselves – and the website gives examples of the sort of people who have already benefitted.
This particular example caught my eye because one of the first countries they will be helping to install such a system is in Brazil, so I have a local story to follow up and share with my Brazilian neighbours. The potential key to the success of this approach is that it is tackling key sources of Ocean plastics. Research in 2014/15 showed that over 50 % of ocean plastics originate in just a handful of relatively poor countries, China, Indonesia, the Philippines Vietnam and Sri Lanka, although Brazil is another country where collection and recycling is largely done at an informal level rather than state or local area sponsored activity. So, if you are going to try and stop the flow, you need to try and stop it where it is at its highest level of “loss”.
Just as a matter of record, although Katz says you should stop the flow INTO the oceans before thinking of “mopping up” the mess that is already there, if someone happens to start the mopping first at least you should not stop them. The Ocean Cleanup is the brainchild of a young man, Boyan Slat, who has devised a method of sweeping up the plastic in the “Gyres” in the Pacific Ocean and other seas and oceans, which looks very promising. Their latest video suggests they may soon be ready to deploy the first of their plastic sweepers and have estimated they may be able to collect up to half of the plastic in the oceans within a five-year period.
For more information on this, have a look at their video promoting the launch of the prototype I 2016 here >>> https://youtu.be/RLAq19hGTBw
The last word
I just wanted to leave you with an image that caused me some amusement today. Apparently the picture herewith is of Donald Trump indicating what he has recently heard is the tiny amount by which the Global Average Temperature has increased recently. Most of you reading this will already know that even a very tiny rise in Global AVERAGE temperatures can spell unpleasant side effects for Climate Change, so the Donald is showing with his inane grin his lack of understanding about such effects – but for all the world it looks as though he is proudly announcing the REAL size of his manhood!
REALLY the last word
The real last word I wanted to add for you today is the factoid that the widespread heatwaves in the highly populated areas of the Northern Hemisphere this summer have occurred because the Jetstream has stalled. The Jetstream is the high-level fast-moving air stream that is usually responsible for shifting weather patterns around as it curves and winds its way around the world. It has apparently “stalled” because the VERY high temperatures around the arctic circle are not much different from the `normal` summer temperatures much further south and it is the net difference that keeps the air circulating. That is my “non-scientific” interpretation of what I have been reading, so I am open to correction if it is inappropriate or incorrect!