Sabrina Chakori On Redesigning The Economy With Sharing & Circular Economy Models
After a BSc. in Biology and a MSc. in Environmental Economics, Sabrina Chakori started an interdisciplinary PhD research looking into zero-packaging food systems.
Sabrina has been active in politics and in many NGOs. For more than a decade, she has been advocating for a more sustainable society in Europe, Australia, Kenya, Mexico and Ecuador. Her experience includes working in international arenas (United Nations), as well as with indigenous communities in the Amazon. In QLD, she collaborated with the Environment Minister to introduce the law to ban single use plastic bags.
In 2017, Sabrina founded the Brisbane Tool Library, a social enterprise that is based on a circular economy and aims to reduce household consumption.
Her book chapter, in ‘Positive Steps to a Steady State Economy’, and her paper, "The Necessity to Change the Term Consumer" both focus on the necessity to rethink our consumption addiction. Sabrina is convinced that to solve the current social and ecological crises we need to change the roots of our economy.
Sabrina is an alumni of Impact Boom’s Elevate+ Social Enterprise Accelerator Program - applications are currently open for the next program running February-June 2019 in Brisbane, Australia.
Sabrina discusses a practical response to the sharing economy, explaining her experience in building the Brisbane Tool Library, and talks about how the ‘circular economy’ has become a mainstream term, sometimes misused, and points us to where we should be focussing…
Highlights from the interview (listen to the podcast for full details)
[Tom Allen] - To start things off, could you please share a bit about your background and what led you down the path of social enterprise and a passion for the circular economy?
[Sabrina Chakori] - Well, as you said briefly, I've been active for more than a decade, mainly Europe and here for the environmental cause, and I've been involved in campaigns against deforestation and plastic projects, to reduce and recycle better. And I just felt that I couldn't spend my energy in all these different issues. So I had to step back from them because they were all equally important to me and I had to think what was the root problem that was affecting all the social and environmental problems today.
I came to the conclusion that our current economic system, based on pure economic growth, (that aims just to increase GDP and profit) actually affects our well being in terms of species, ecological systems, etc.
So I thought I need to redesign the economy. After publishing a few things that no one actually read, I thought we should do it with the community and that's what led me to build the Brisbane Tool Library.
Fantastic. So tell us more about the Brisbane Tool Library then. What is it? And how does it operate?
Well the Brisbane Tool Library as the name says, really works like a book library, but people can borrow hand tools, power tools, camping gear, kitchen appliances, and much more. And the idea is that we need to reduce consumption.
We talk a lot about reducing waste, but waste is just post consumer goods going to landfill and we talk too little about reducing consumption which involves extraction of natural resources, manufacturing, etc.
So it really works like a book library. People can walk in and just choose an item and bring it home. Everything we have here at the Brisbane Tool Library has been donated or collected from landfill.
It's crazy when we see that perfect functioning items are considered waste in our society.
Absolutely. Recently you've been getting a lot of traction on the mainstream media, which has been really exciting. You’ve also entered a recent partnership with Queensland State Library, where we're sitting now. You work with many volunteers as well. Talking of volunteers, in your experience, in running the Brisbane Tool Library, what do you believe are the fundamental ingredients for long term success when running a project with such a diverse group of people?
I should say that I really believe in the social enterprise model because it is actually different from the traditional charities that we have probably grown up with. And I do feel that social enterprise should be self-sustaining financially. So that is actually a priority, and it has always been our goal, and it is in our constitution. But to start things off when you don't have investment, because you are a not-for-profit, you have to work around the system.
And human capital is a capital and we work with that.
Human capital means that volunteers, people, come in and they are the project, they don't work for the project.
We’ve had more than 40 volunteers from 13 different nationalities contributing. And most of them have been volunteering now on a regular basis, almost full time jobs for two years.
The approach that we used is that we never said what we needed, we always ask people how they wanted to contribute in the project.
So they brought their skill most of the time, but the rest of the time they just came and learned with us and I'm learning every day here too.
So, what have been some of the greatest challenges in running the Brisbane Tool Library, and how have you worked around them?
Well funding is a challenge for everyone; businesses, social enterprise or any project.
I think one of our biggest challenges has been to find a space, because nowadays we talk often about the sharing economy, but usually we think about the peer-to-peer platform apps, etc, while libraries in general have been sharing economy hubs for centuries.
First of all, libraries should claim back the sharing economy trend.
What I wanted to say was that a lot of sharing economy projects are peer-to-peer, digital businesses, but when you actually have assets to stock, that is a problem. And it's a problem when you're in the heart of Brisbane, or close to the major city in the world, because such enterprises and small community groups are competing for space with big corporations.
I do think that state government, or councils, or regional authorities should give space to communities, because while everything goes digitalised and we live most of our time behind the screen, in this era it's more important to have spaces. So we did find a space that we shared with another community group in West End at the beginning and then we signed this partnership with the State Library of Queensland and we moved here. And it's a great partnership because personally I get to work with volunteers, as you said, with community, and at the same time basically with State Government. So it's an interesting partnership under that perspective. And the other thing, as I said, State Library can offer more than just books or WiFi to people, allowing people to borrow our items.
Yes, fantastic. When you did mention before that funding could be an issue, and you yourselves are looking to become a fully sustainable, social enterprise economically as well, and I imagine that's why you have your membership model as well. It was a pleasure to work with you earlier in the year, Sabrina, as part of the Elevate+ Accelerator program and we'll look forward to having you as a mentor on the upcoming program as well to share your experiences, but from that programme, what was one of the core lessons that you learned and took away with you?
So, I should admit that I'm usually very sceptical about accelerators and programs. Also because I'm probably a bit difficult to coach, so I know that…
You were a challenge! [Laughs jokingly]. No, you weren’t.
I really enjoyed the experience and learned from it, and I'm not just saying it because it's a public podcast, but I think that the program is definitely interesting if you're starting. There's different content from business models to IP advice that we received. But the most important thing that I took from it, is actually the community that we created, and [now] we meet the other social entrepreneurs at least once per month. I do have other friends [from the Elevate+ Program], because now they are friends, coming into the tool library. We really help each other, and
I feel when you put yourself in a project and the project is completely dependent on you, it's nice to have that resilient group and environment where you can share not just your successes, but especially your challenges and problems. And I feel that with the Elevate+ cohort we do share the problems and help each other, practically helping each other.
Yeah, it's a friendly group of people. So, what do you think then, are the essential values of the sharing economy? You talk a lot about these sharing and circular economies, but what needs to be done to help accelerate the movement and get mainstream society to move from this linear to circular economy?
I use the term ‘circular economy’ a lot, but I feel that the term itself already became mainstream, but people understand it differently. Unfortunately circular economy per se, now became "let's recycle better".
And again, when we think about recycling better of course it is an important part of resource recovery, but it doesn't change the root of the economy.
Let's take a plastic item for example. We still produce it, use it, and then yes, we can recycle it, but the fact that we already produce it in the first place and we don't ask ourself if we really need it, is the problem.
I think that we are in a very big transition. I'm relatively young, and I think Millennials, maybe they are different from the Baby Boomers generation, we want access to stuff, not only to tools, in case of the tool library, I can't even remember when I bought the last DVD's because we don't buy the DVD itself, we want the movie.
I think we are moving from that materialistic ownership, to something new. The thing is, we haven’t defined yet what that new thing is. I feel that we should build a de-growth economy which doesn't mean recession, or chaos, it just means planning the economy to reduce the material consumption.
All the activities that we do today are measured in term of economic success, economic growth and economic growth means adding to GDP. So let me give you an example, a standing forest doesn't add to GDP, but if a forest is cut down and manufactured something else, that adds to GDP. A divorce adds to GDP, a car accident adds to the GDP.
So basically how we are measuring our economy is wrong.
And I'm not the first person to say that. GDP itself has been criticised for the last 50 years. So when I always say, ‘when your economy is not growing fast, have an accidental divorce; you can help your country!’ So when we start thinking about that, we actually have that perspective on everything we do in our lives; where do we consume our food, where is the food source in first place, etc… then we can start talking about the economy.
And I do feel that unfortunately, environmental problems and economic problems are usually discussed separately. If you go on any website of major media or any United Nations page, you have to go in the environment or science page to find related problems, and you then go to the economic one to see how economic growth is succeeding or not.
Once we understand that the economy does affect our jobs, does affect our environment, does affect our health, then we can actually create a real circular economy, in terms of living in a finite planet and we needing to adjust our lifestyle by consequence.
So what do you think can be done then, from this sharing economy perspective, when it comes to policy? What can be done by government to help foster and support social enterprises operating in this space?
One thing, as I said before, is space. Space, in a very populated planet, is a priority. Space to share assets and not just to commodify your car park or your house, is important. The other thing, in terms, for example electronic items; since the mid 50s companies started to produce designing for planned obsolescence, so that our items, our computers, our drills, etc. are produced to breakdown after six months to two years. Governments can impact and limit planned obsolescence.
It is something discussed in Europe, it is not really implemented, but France, for example, tried to add the right to repair, if something cannot be repaired, it cannot be sold, on paper at least.
In Australia there is the Federal Stewardship Act under revision, and they are trying to understand how to reduce e-waste and other things, but again, the problem with e-waste is not recycling better or exporting it to Africa for other countries to recycle, but it is to produce less.
Government has to take seriously the industry input and not just the outputs, but unfortunately because our politicians internationally measure economic success in term of GDP, anything that would go against GDP would not really be considered.
What are some other inspiring projects or initiatives that you've come across recently that you believe are creating some strong, positive, social change?
Well, maybe one of them I’m getting familiar with, (with my PhD actually), is the Zero Packaging Stores movement. They are businesses, they're completely self-dependent, they probably don't call themselves social enterprises, but they do have an impact. Because when you buy food in bulk, it means you don't need packaging in the first place. You don't have marketing to influence; ‘buy two and get a three-pack of cereals.’ And they do shorten the supply chain. So that is an example of normal business, but with great outcomes, and they also reduce food waste at home because you buy just what you need. There are a lot of social enterprises that have been around for years now and that I respect, like Substation33 in Brisbane [led by Tony Sharp], and I feel that it's important to look what's around us and value that, rather than just always taking an American standard or European standard for great achievement.
The risk is also that a lot of people might not know what effort you need to build a social enterprise, and I want to avoid that people take it as a fashionable, green-washing thing… they start, create a Facebook page or website, and after two months they just stop.
It is hard, but basically we don't have any other choice than to do it.
I think that's a strong message there Sabrina.
So to finish off then, what are some inspiring books or websites that you'd recommend to our listeners?
I almost never read novels and my books are pretty similar within themselves. The first one that maybe summarises in a better way, what I discussed today is Prosperity Without Growth by Tim Jackson, No Logo by Naomi Kline, as well as, The Value of Nothing of Raj Patel. All my books are very similar, but the interesting thing is that these books don't criticise the current system, but they rather come with solutions. And that is really important because we already know that our system is failing us, but now let's talk about solutions.
Prosperity Without Growth - Economics for a Finite Planet by Tim Jackson
No Logo by Naomi Klein
The Value of Nothing by Raj Patel
The Third Industrial Revolution by Jeremy Rifkin
Holomonomics - Business Where People and Planet Matter by Simon Robinson and Maria Moraes Robinson