How to use business to change the world (according to 3 ethical innovators)
© Courtesy of Great Wrap
Do you have an idea to help change the world for the better? Say no more: we spoke to three ethically-minded Australian businesses to glean some wisdom for the next generation of change-makers.
As 2020 rolls steadily towards its natural conclusion, it’s fair to say that it's been a challenging few months. Between the pandemic, bushfires, flagrant social injustice, still-melting ice caps, travel bans, lockdowns, biodiversity loss or any other combination of not-so-good-thing, it feels like we've been thrown every type of curveball under the sun.
But as strange as it may sound, there’s still a lot to be optimistic about. You just need to know where to look for inspiration.
While news headlines dish up the doom and gloom on a daily basis, away from the spotlight – hunkered down in co-working spaces and bedrooms, and sprawled over kitchen tables all over Australia – a new generation of innovators, makers and creators are busy tinkering away on their solutions to our biggest problems.
All wrapped up
Take Melbourne-based entrepreneurs Jordy and Julia Kay, for example. Having started his career in the wine business, Jordy couldn’t believe the amount of non-biodegradable plastic wrap the hospitality industry was using on daily basis – wrap that would eventually find its way to landfill and just sit there. Forever.
Jordy and Julia knew there had to be a better way, so they came up with Great Wrap: the world’s first biodegradable stretch wrap. The product is 100% compostable, leaves no trace of residue or microplastics, and breaks down in just 180 days.
While Great Wrap started life as a B2B operation – selling palettes of wrap directly to commercial outfits – with more people working from home through the COVID-19 pandemic, Jordy and Julia began selling their product direct to consumers too. “I genuinely believe people, by and large, are good,” says Jordy. “And I think that while many companies are about maximising profit, they’re also increasingly about minimising their impact.”
The trick to getting traction for a new idea, adds Julia, isn’t really a trick at all: it’s about finding a problem in the world, and dreaming up a way to fix it. “For us, the problem was that Australia is using 150,000 tonnes of cling wrap every year,” she says. “And it’s all ending up in the ocean or in landfill.”
We know new clothes won’t help solve homelessness... But we think access to opportunities can.
It isn’t just Australia’s single-use plastic problem that Jordy and Julia are trying to tackle either. The wrap itself is manufactured out of recycled food waste, which means Great Wrap is also putting some of the 7.3 million tonnes of food that Australia sends to landfill every year to good use. It’s a two birds, one stone kind-of operation.
Tackling homelessness with purpose (and profit)
For Nick Pearce, youth homelessness was the problem he wanted to tackle. Not content with the fact that, on any given night in Australia, some 116,000 people are estimated to be sleeping rough, he and friends Marcus Crook and Rob Gillies co-founded HoMie – a streetwear label that channels 100% of its profits into tackling youth homelessness.
With a flagship store located in Fitzroy, Melbourne, HoMie has gone from strength to strength since it began life as a pop-up at Federation Square in 2014. Nick’s lightbulb moment came when he figured out how to make his friends care about the issue of homelessness. “That’s where the streetwear component came into it,” he says.
HoMie uses the profits it makes selling clothes to fund a program that gives employment opportunities, education and life skills to at-risk young people. At the end of the program, participants graduate with a Cert III in retail, with the majority of graduates then going on to find meaningful employment elsewhere. “We know new clothes won’t help solve homelessness,” says Nick. “But we think access to opportunities can… You can’t just put someone under a roof and say, ‘good luck, see you later!’”
To Nick’s point, while HoMie and Great Wrap are both solving problems, they’re doing it with different business models. Great Wrap is selling a specific product to help solve a specific issue, while HoMie is using profit to enact the social change they want to see in the world.
Point being: whether you create a literal ‘fix’ for an issue or focus on a profit-for-purpose model, you can do a lot of good either way.
Ellen Jacobsen, HoMie’s social impact manager, agrees. “I think businesses, especially big businesses, have so much capacity for influence,” she says. “When you look at big brands, especially retail brands, they have so much sway over young people – how they think and feel, how they spend their money. So being able to harness that influence – for good – is such a powerful thing.”
We can future-proof the planet by using the next generation – they’re the ones that are going to be the game-changers.
For anyone looking to adopt HoMie’s community-driven approach to purposeful business, Ellen says it’s important to engage with the communities you’re trying to support. “I think a lot of people from the outside come up with ideas for what people need, but there’s often a bit of a disconnect when you don’t have the lived experience,” she says. “It’s important to talk to people. That’s why our program has been so strong – it wasn’t just us coming up with a solution, it was really directed by our participants.”
A new generation of change-makers
Elsewhere, some purpose-driven businesses are trying to scale themselves into extinction. Pete Ceglinski, CEO and co-founder of the Seabin Project – a business dedicated to cleaning up our oceans (which are currently home to an estimated 5 trillion pieces of wayward plastic) – hopes that one day his business doesn’t even need to exist. “That’s our mission statement,” says Pete. “To not have a need for Seabins. And if we achieve it, I’m pretty sure we’ll be able to find something else to do!”
The idea behind Seabin, the product, is simple: “if we have rubbish bins on land, why don’t we have them in the water?” says Pete, who credits his business partner, Andrew Turton, with the original idea for Seabin.
The bins work like something between a pool skimmer and a Roomba – they’re placed in marinas, harbours, ports and yacht clubs, and then just float around sucking up trash. Each filter holds 20kgs of trash total and, when a filter is full, they can be pulled out and replaced, like an aquatic bin liner.
But the Seabins themselves are just one element of the Seabin Project’s work: the other is education and prevention. For Pete, cleaning up the oceans isn’t enough – we need better education and prevention strategies in place to ensure garbage doesn’t end up in the ocean in the first place, so the company puts a lot of effort into monitoring, awareness and prevention programs.
As far as he’s concerned, it’s the up-and-coming generations that are going to have the biggest impact on our collective future. “Education is what’s going to solve our problems,” says Pete. “If we were smarter, we wouldn’t have these problems in the first place. We can future-proof the planet by using the next generation – they’re the ones that are going to be the game-changers.”
According to Julia, there’s never been a better time for young people to get involved in social innovation, and to start drumming up new ways for us to build a more sustainable and equitable future, and to create businesses that go beyond just the for-profit model.
“The world feels as though it’s needing to reset,” she says. “It’s the perfect opportunity to start with a clean slate and take what we know – which is so, so much – connect with all of the open source information, connect with other people, and do something positive. It’s such an exciting time.”