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This is about a radical model of enterprise in Stoke where the “cradle-to-cradle” zero-waste business model has been taken one step further. On Saturday I heard at Stoke Stories how a former cattle and tropical agriculture specialist came to be involved in an organisation tackling pressing environmental and social problems through computers.

Hugh Irvine is one of a number of people who are functionally “directors” of The Ethical Computer Company (TECC), based near Stoke. He gave us an honest and insightful account of how it refurbishes and recycles computing equipment that has stopped being used or is damaged. For the last 12 years it has sold computers at low-cost whilst providing paid employment for long-term unemployed and training for young people and marginalised individuals to get them ready for employment. Unemployment is generally recognised as Stoke’s greatest problem, in particular, the unemployment of skilled artisans who once worked in the pottery industry.

This is borne out in the murmurs of approval 51 seconds into Hugh’s talk…

… or if you prefer more quantitative evidence, almost a third more people in Stoke‐on‐Trent are unemployed compared to the national average (1).

Desso aims for all the material resources in their products to be recycled or reused to ensure that a “new” product needs no additional raw materials

I wanted to write about TECC in relation to the “cradle-to-cradle” approach discussed in last week’s RSA lecture, which included Dame Ellen MacArthur and Stef Kranendijk, CEO of the carpeting company Desso. Desso (like TECC) aims for all the material resources in its products to be recycled or reused to ensure that a “new” product needs no additional raw materials (though renewable energy and human resources are undoubtedly needed to undertake this recycling and reusing).

TECC delivers a zero material-resource-waste and a zero human-resource-waste business model... helping local people develop transferable skills that they can reuse in future employment

What TECC showed me – and this is why I called it a radical model – is another way of looking at the cradle-to-cradle business model. Firstly, TECC also recycles and reuses the products of other computer sellers (its competitors of sorts), as well as making its own products recyclable and reusable. Secondly, and what I will explore in a bit more detail, TECC also focuses on human or social sustainability. Desso might employ whoever in the labour market wants the job (to deliver a zero material-resource-waste business model). TECC, on the other hand, delivers a zero material-resource-waste and a zero human-resource-waste business model. It employs local people who face difficulties in getting employment because of a culture of unemployment, physical disabilities or a criminal record. Desso wants to prevent its product materials from ending up on the environmental scrapheap. This compares with TECC which also works to prevent people from ending up on the ‘economic scrapheap’, instead helping people to develop transferable skills that they can reuse in future employment.

This model of operating a business will be familiar to a number of social entrepreneurs. Indeed eight of the 25 enterprises that won the prestigious social enterprise programme the Big Venture Challenge are applying a similar method; employing people who would otherwise face major difficulties in getting employment.

With this in mind, you could argue that this (expanded) interpretation of cradle-to-cradle then also has relevance for those few sectors that don’t dispose of their products quickly for recycling to be important. At the Desso lecture, Paul King, CEO of the UK Green Building Council, laid down the challenge of retrofitting Britain’s housing stock – 80% of which he said will still be here in 2050. Could retrofitting be delivered by training up the long-term unemployed? The Green New Deal described this as a ‘carbon army,’ Boris Johnson proposed something similar, but RE:FIT, set to retrofit 55,000 London homes before March 2012 (2), show no signs of training long-term unemployed people. Birmingham council has embarked on something along these lines. With the retrofitting industry worth £500bn over the next three decades (3), with the likelihood of public investment diminishing and with people so far unenthusaistic about letting big energy companies sell them energy efficiency services, is there not a space for a social enterprise? I’d love to know if one exists.

we don’t have a hierarchy, we are a bunch of people that want to make things happen

Lastly, I wanted to raise some of challenges TECC faces in increasing its impact that Hugh talked so passionately about, which I will soon put to the RSA Fellows' Social Entrepreneurs' Network.

  • In a majority public sector economy, there was some scepticism among previously state-funded voluntary groups who had been told by local authorities to become social enterprises. But the story of the Ethical Computer Company showed that it was possible to build a social enterprise in Stoke, with a lot of hard work and no little skill, without funding from the public authorities. That said, TECC has been frustrated about the lack of collaboration from the public authorities. It is based exactly opposite a partially-empty Council-owned building which could provide a springboard for growth, and Hugh knows of a closed-down school that has a great deal of IT equipment just sitting there unused
  • Established in 1999 before the Community Interest Company legal form was created, TECC is a charity and company hybrid. This makes some charitable foundations suspicious and less ready to fund the enterprise
  • Hugh describes TECC as follows “we don’t have a hierarchy, we are a bunch of people that want to make things happen.” Decisions are made in a weekly meeting, open to all team members, each of who provide leadership according to their own particular strengths. This is philosophically important to the team but is a challenging way to organise an enterprise and also thoroughly confuses some people. Suggestions of how to scale up governance arrangements that are neither a fully-fledged collective nor a traditional company are welcome.
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