“Corporate Social Responsibility.” “Creating Shared Value.” “Triple Bottom Line.” While these terms vary slightly in meaning, they all describe philosophies of market-based business aiming to be… good. Good to people, good to the planet, good to their shareholders. The goal of this article is to introduce you to some examples of social entrepreneurship, and demonstrate why it’s important, geographically speaking.
First though, I would caution everybody that we have to think critically about companies that claim interest in the common good. Philanthropy and token environmentalism (greenwashing) are constantly being exaggerated by companies that want the added social value of being seen as “green” and “socially responsible.” The best educators in this department have been the Yes Men, a group of social satirists who expose corporate hypocrisy by imitating companies. One hilarious example is this presentation about recycling human waste into McDonald’s hamburgers (great video for mature kids and adults who aren’t currently eating a meal).
Our first two examples are about real initiatives to recycle human waste. Unlike the Yes Men’s satire, these programs present real solutions to social and environmental problems. I grew up with composting toilets and outhouses, so for me it’s normal to talk about human waste. But, if it grosses you out too much, go ahead and skip to number three.
1. Sub-Saharan Africa: In Kumasi, Ghana, Ashley Murray and her company Waste Enterprisers turn wastewater treatment ponds into fish farms. The waste is full of nutrients, so the fish don’t need any additional food. They filter the water and grow bigger until employees harvest them to sell in local fish markets. Murray’s company is currently piloting many more ideas of how to re-use waste. Right now, it relies on grants, but it’s not a non-profit. Someday, it hopes to be not only self-sufficient, but also profitable.
2. Haiti: Sasha Kramer’s SOIL works in Haiti with one simple mission: Give people access to toilets, and then recycle the human waste into low-cost fertilizer. The project also acts as a springboard for other recycling projects, as well as art and storytelling activities. Seed money from Oxfam International supported initial infrastructural investment for the program, but the product–rich compost–provides a revenue stream for the project, as well.
3. Canada: Ecotrust Canada is “an enterprising nonprofit whose purpose is to build the conservation economy” in coastal British Colombia. Unlike Waste Enterprises or SOIL, Ecotrust’s expertise lies not in engineering and project execution, but in financing and planning. As finance consultants, they examine the viability of business plans. For example, they find loans for small-scale fishermen and forestry companies (often operated by indigenous tribes) to upgrade their equipment to be certified as sustainable. For more on resource exploitation in Canada and its impact on First Nation’s people, check out Explorer-in-Residence Wade Davis’ work to protect the Sacred Headwaters.
4. China: ECOLOGIA (ECOlogists Linked for Organizing Grassroots Initiatives and Action) has run many of its projects (energy, agriculture) in Europe, but now it’s pushing for socially responsible entrepreneurship in China. In areas like Shenzhen, one of China’s five Special Economic Zone, ECOLOGIA trains entrepreneurs in internationally recognized social responsibility standards such as:
○ Organizational governance
○ Human rights
○ Labor practices
○ Fair operating practices
○ Consumer issues
○ Community involvement and development
China is a gigantic challenge, because Chinese businessmen/women are not used to market pressure that encourages social and environmental friendliness. As one insider who works in China told me, “in the U.S. or Europe where consumer conscience is strong, companies are pressured to act, but still very passively. But in a developing country like China, such pressure is negligible.”
5. Global: One Laptop Per Child’s name explains their mission: They want every kid in the world to have access to their own laptop. Their success has come from their skill in designing for the needs of children in the developing world, while making them affordable enough for their governments to buy wholesale. Check out the design of their XO laptop. An example of OLPC’s work that caught my attention recently was Cain Abel, charismatic star of the recent National Geographic-supported documentary Life in a Day. In the film, we see Cain’s tough life as a child shoe-shiner. But, we also see his XO laptop, where he plays, writes, and learns on Wikipedia “because it’s like a huge library.”
Most of these programs are experimental, growing, and innovative. We have yet to see if they can meet the triple bottom line of people, planet, and profit. If there is one trend I have noticed among social entrepreneurs, it is the ability to connect the local to the global. Each of these projects takes into account the local context while working to solve global problems. Only with this appreciation of different scales can they succeed on a practical level, which is what changing the world is all about.