It's Not Easy Being Green... But It's Getting Easier
The last few years have been great for raising awareness and boosting green commerce. Many in the business community, from large corporations to small businesses, are starting to see that adopting a greener attitude makes sense—conserving energy and supplying environmentally sound products and services benefits the environment and the bottom line. It's difficult to tell at times whether real change is taking place behind the claims, but it appears even Target and Wal-Mart are taking measures to reduce their environmental impact.
The same could be said for social enterprises like Materials Matter. We've had some banner years of growth recently, as nonprofits and businesses alike see the value of creating business models that benefit the "triple bottom line" of positive financial, social and environmental outcomes. The announcement of the America Forward initiative is evidence that the movement is about to grow new muscle with the support of policy makers.
The road has been far from smooth for either cause. Though describing activities that have been going on since the Girl Scouts sold their first box of Thin Mints, the term “social enterprise” has taken a meandering path into the public awareness, surfacing in discussion of everything from the Grameen Bank and it’s hero-founder Dr. Muhammad Yunus to the feel-good deliciousness of fair-trade coffees. And there were the cautionary tales as well, such as the Harvard Business Review’s 2005 article titled 'Should Nonprofits Seek Profits?' or the June 2007 SEEDCO Foundation report called “The Limits of Social Enterprise.” The latter argued that nonprofits running commercial businesses generally leads to frustration and failure, either of the venture itself or of its revenue projections. The overall agreement in these articles seemed to be that “unrealistic expectations” about financial outcomes are the root problem of unsuccessful earned-income ventures for nonprofits.
When are unrealistic expectations not the root of dissatisfaction? And when are they not accompanied by the kind of beautiful hope where all great changes are born?
Materials Matter is a venture that embraces both green commerce and social enterprise as our basic business models. We salvage materials and rescue excess, saving them both from landfills. Those goods are then distributed to nonprofit building shelters or housing, or sold to the public to create earned income we can use to run our organization and bulk-purchase the materials we can’t find in the wild. The crew here knows all about frustration and failure, but we also know about resilience and success. We hope that 2008 brings more good news for both green commerce and social enterprise, proving that activism can be incredibly powerful when it finds a way to work within the market.