Social Entrepreneur Lee from Akha Ama Cafe in Chiang Mai
The Internet has facilitated nothing short of a revolution in entrepreneurship. Business has gone from physical, real world spaces with high startup costs, to massive online opportunities which anyone with a laptop can start with a few dollars and Internet access. These truly are amazing times. While it’s great that there has been an explosion in the startup, digital nomad and lifestyle design communities, there is a conspicuous absence of entrepreneurs working on businesses that make the world a better place. An overwhelming majority seem quite happy to focus on socially useless products and services or even environmentally destructive consumer goods. There is hope however. All over the world, there is a new generation of social entrepreneurs, non-profits and activists that realize that there is more to life than profits at all costs.
Are you the Problem?
We’ve all heard the expression, “You’re either part of the solution, or you’re part of the problem.” Despite the massive wealth in the world, we still have half the planet living in abject poverty, a billion don’t have access to clean drinking water, there are tens of millions of refugees without a home country, millions are victims of human trafficking, and environmental problems threaten the very existence of our planet.
There are two ways to respond to all the suffering and problems of the world. One is to stand up and do something about it or follow the more common choice and just continue shopping.
The World is Doomed, So Let’s Go Out with a Bang
Judging by our collective actions, most of us don’t really seem to care about the problems in the world enough to actually do something meaningful about it. I’m really surprised at how many times I’ve heard fatalistic arguments about our future, which essentially boil down to..
the world is doomed, we’re not going to fix it in time, so there is no point in worrying about it.
Consider some facts and the choices you make every day.
Fact: Wild ocean fish are expected to be largely extinct in the next decade or two.
What do you do with that fact? Do you eat as much fish as you can now, because only genetically weak farmed fish will exist in another 10 years? Or, Do you cut back consumption to give fish stocks a chance to replenish.
With fish consumption rapidly increasing around the world, it’s very clear the decision we’ve made.
Fact: If everyone on the planet consumed at the rate of the US or Canada, we’d need five planets of resources.
If you’re Canadian or American, do you think it’s your right to consume, pollute and waste at hundred times, possibly thousands of times the global average? I’m willing to bet you throw out more food each year than the poorest of the world eat.
Do you reduce the size of your house, get rid of your vehicles and purchase more sustainable and locally produced goods? Or, do you keep on expanding your consumption like we have been for the last seven decades or so?
Fact: It only costs about $20 per person for a permanent source of clean drinking water, yet almost a billion people go without.
For $20 billion, we could permanently provide clean drinking water for everyone on the planet. That’s about 10% of US Alcohol sales for one year.
Do we step up as individual consumers and the world as a whole, to provide such easy wins to the most disadvantaged? Or, do we save our money for that new car, TV or fancy gadget we want? Save 500 lives or a new TV? It’s a tough choice.
Is this the Best You Can Do?
With all of the incredible suffering, poverty and environmental calamities we are facing in the world, is what you are working on now, the best you can do?
Our most talented, productive and skilled entrepreneurs seem to be preoccupied with largely socially useless businesses. There are exceptions, but they’re still very rare.
Look at all the advertisements and businesses you encounter on a daily basis. How many new products or services are making the world measurably better, as opposed to just selling us more useless junk? Is your business making the world a better place?
The Next Generation of Entrepreneurs
Fortunately, I believe we’re on the cusp of a higher level of business. There are increasing numbers of social entrepreneurs, non-profits and activists that actually care about making the world a better place.
Some of the people that I personally know are:
- Dwight Turner of InSearchofSanuk who is dedicating his life to the support of under-privileged children in Thailand.
- Ben Randall, of The Human, Earth Project, is filming a documentary to bring awareness to human trafficking.
- Shannon O’Donnell, has GrassrootsVolunteering.org to encourage more young people to volunteer overseas.
- Clayton of SpartanTraveler is proving that you can make money and do good with his renewable energy business.
- Lee from Akha Ama Cafe in Chiang Mai, is growing high quality coffee in his family hill tribe village to create sustainable source of income for a largely marginalized community.
- Lisa of Free Bird Cafe founded and manages a non-profit and social enterprise to educate disadvantaged children in Thailand.
- Jan and Heleen from EcoGoodies.nl have a marketplace of sustainable products.
There are countless other volunteers, NGOs and social entrepreneurs that are making a meaningful difference in the lives of the most disadvantaged. While, there isn’t much of a business model in helping a sex trafficking victim or providing clean drink water to a remote village, I can’t think of anything that is a more valuable contribution to humanity. These are the people, transforming the world, one life at a time.
There aren’t many focusing on socially good endeavours but the numbers are growing quickly. As a human race, we are progressing up Maslow’s hierarchy towards that illusive self-actualization. When a life can be saved for as little as $100, it’s getting harder to justify spending the equivalent amount on a bottle of wine or on a dinner out. Who wants to produce cheap consumer goods in China, when that same energy can save children’s lives?
Make no mistake, there are huge obstacles in the way. The global population is going to grow by another 2 billion before mid-century. A couple billion more people are coming online with the same insatiable consumer demands of the west. Our already over-stressed planet is going to be tested to it’s limits.
If we can survive the next three or four decades, we should be okay. However, that is a big IF. China is the first major country to commit environmental suicide, they certainly won’t be the last. Deadly pollution, tainted water and food supplies, endemic corruption, and a raping of all natural resources, does not bode well for the future of the Chinese.
The wealthy will escape to safer countries but, hundreds of millions of poor won’t be so fortunate. We will undoubtedly continue to see mass migrations over the next decades, but there is still no way to escape this planet. It will all catch up to us sooner or later.
I am hopeful that an army of social entrepreneurs will step up to solve the greatest environmental and social problems facing mankind. I believe that people are fundamentally good and will do what is right… eventually. What is the point of life if we are not striving to contribute as much value as we can to our fellow citizens?
Thank you for this list. My family and I are moving back to Japan and I’ve been looking for good family volunteering opportunities in SE Asia. Grassroots Volunteering looks like a great site.
Awesome article John! I am glad to see that someone else is paying attention to the new entrepreneurial trend. Traditional enterprise and biz alike is dying.
Have you been through Ubud, Bali recently? We have a little coworking space here called Hubud that has a lot of social entrepreneurs and workshops to support them, weekly think tanks, etc. Thought you might be interested.
Thanks Elmer. I hope traditional businesses are dying. There’s definitely a big push to CSR, but it still seems like a marketing gimmick. The change is coming, we’ll just have to wait to see how long it will take to really hit mainstream.
Grassroots Volunteering is definitely a good place to start. Shannon is doing some great work.
No, I haven’t been to Ubud in a long time. I definitely loved it the first time though. I’ll try to get there later in the year!
I would be interested in your idea of “socially useless business”. Maybe you could share some examples.
I think there are degrees of socially useless and even destructive businesses.
On the ‘useless’ side, there would be online poker, other forms of gambling, day trading, most niche websites, even most of SEO. All are basically zero sum games where someone has to lose for another to gain. They are not making the world a better place.
I would even say that most luxury goods, fashion, premium food, alcohol, 95% of smart phone apps, most consumer goods, are also largely socially useless.
A $10,000 watch doesn’t tell time better than a $50 one.
Even worse are the destructive businesses. These are often highly profitable but bring huge negative costs to society as a whole. Some obvious examples would be tobacco, fast food, bottled water and soft drink industries.
The real question is where are the businesses that are really creating net positive value to the world? Where are the companies that use 100% sustainable inputs? Where are the companies that are completely offsetting their carbon footprints? Where are the companies that are not abusing workers in overseas factories?
As consumers we love that everything as gotten so cheap, but we don’t seem to care about the damage we are inflicting with that consumption.
Relative to useless and destructive businesses, socially good businesses practically don’t exist.
Another eye opening post. I’m beginning to build a business with my business partner and so I’m glad you posted this. Will definitely affect our planning.
Interesting point about the socially useless/destructive businesses, which probably does make up a large part of the economy anywhere.
People will always try to do what is profitable though, so I don’t know how easy it would be to change this at large.