Social Innovation

3 ways social innovators are driving systemic change, from creating sustainable fashion to supporting refugees

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Rethinking sustainable fashion Image: Ecoalf

Pavitra Raja
Community Lead, CEO Action Group On Nature Pillar, World Economic Forum
Jessica Wanger
Deputy Head, Event Editorial, World Economic Forum

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  • Social innovators are helping address some of the most pressing issues of today.
  • For example, they are providing solutions to fight climate change, support refugees and treat addiction and mental health issues.
  • Here are three stories that show the power of social innovation to change lives.

Social innovators are addressing some of the world’s biggest social and environmental problems in radically new ways. They are pioneering novel systemic solutions to transform industries and reach millions of vulnerable people.

The power of digital platforms and other new technologies is enabling the roll-out of innovative models on a scale and at a speed that would have been unimaginable in the past. The Schwab Foundation’s social entrepreneur community has already improved the lives and livelihoods of more than 622 million people in 190 counties, while mitigating emissions of 192 million tonnes of CO2. The latest advances promise further substantial benefits.

Here are some of the ways that social innovators are disrupting traditional operating models around the developing world.


What is the World Economic Forum doing to champion social innovation?

Creating sustainable fashion

The world’s fashion brands face a daunting challenge. In order to mitigate the harm caused to the environment by today’s throwaway culture of cheap clothing, they need to build a sustainable future based on sharply reduced volumes.

“Fashion cannot just be about looking good anymore. It also has to be about doing what is right and feeling good about it,” said Javier Goyeneche, founder of Ecoalf. “Young people are very much into sustainability but they also want to keep buying 20 T-shirts a year for 5 euros each. That is not possible any more. People have to start buying less.”

Since founding Spanish sustainable fashion brand Ecoalf 12 years ago, Goyeneche has built a business that turns waste plastic – from PET bottles to fishing nets – into fabrics and materials that are both ethical and attractive. It has created more than 540 fabrics from recycled waste, using them in a range of clothing and footwear products that have won design plaudits.

His Upcycling the Oceans project started with three fishermen from Alicante. Now it involves more than 3,400 Spanish fishermen collecting waste from the sea. The scheme has been replicated in Thailand – and the next phase will see the participation of over 10,000 fishermen across multiple Mediterranean ports by 2025.

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When it comes to greenhouse gases, the fashion industry is a substantial contributor to climate change, accounting for some 4% of emissions globally. What is more, it is way off track in meeting its targets. On current projections it will miss 2030 emissions reduction targets by 50%.

According to Safia Minney, Founder of People Tree, that means fashion firms must confront the “elephant in the room” – by shrinking output.

“We have to reduce production and consumption of fashion by between 75% and 95%,” she said. “This contraction of the fashion industry is at first seen as a negative but actually it is an enormous positive. We just have to get out of the old-fashioned growth mentality that has caused the problem.”

For three decades her company People Tree has applied high ethical and environmental standards to its clothes by developing collections featuring organic cotton, responsible wool and traditional artisan skills. The approach challenges the standard economics of high-street fashion by placing a premium on skills, rather than affordable materials. As result, the proportion of labor in the fob (free on board) price of its handwoven products can be as high as 30%, rather than the typical 3-4%.

Supporting urban refugees

COVID-19 and the Afghan refugee crisis have once again highlighted the vulnerability of displaced populations around the world, exposing millions to new suffering and uncertainty. Both events show the need to seek long-term solutions, by building and nurturing the self-reliance of displaced people.

Many historical notions about refugees are outdated. Today, on average, the world’s 80 million forcibly displaced people will be obliged to seek refuge for more than 20 years, with less than 2% a year finding any durable solution in the form of repatriation, permanent resettlement or legal integration into their host country. More than 60% live of them live in cities rather than camps.

“The idea that has been there since World War II is that people flee their homes, they go to a camp, and they receive a tent, food and aid until they can go home," said Sasha Chanoff, Founder of RefugePoint. "But that’s not relevant for the context of today’s crisis because people don’t go home any more.”

Instead, new coalitions and initiatives are needed to give people a chance to use their talents and skills to support themselves in low-income urban environments where they typically occupy a shadow world without official rights or social safety net.

RefugePoint was founded in 2005 to bridge this gap. It uses private funds to provide refugees with small amounts of capital and support that allow them to build micro-businesses and take vital steps toward self-sufficiency.

Its approach has been proven to work in Nairobi, and the organisation has pioneered a systematic way to measure a household’s movement towards self-reliance and assess which programmes work best.

“This is the first tool that gives an overview of how a family is doing across all the different parameters,” said Amy Slaughter, Senior Advisor of the organization.

The improved data means better outcomes. Since 2015, more than 2,300 refugee clients in Nairobi have graduated from RefugePoint’s assistance scheme by establishing small businesses to provide for their families.

Image: RefugePoint

Treating addiction and mental health issues

The traditional way of treating opioid and alcohol addiction is expensive and hard to access, typically involving a 30-day rehab stay that in the US can cost $30,000 to $45,000.

Now things are changing. US digital start-up Workit Health has brought together clinicians and technologists to offer cheaper personalized counselling and gold-standard medical care in the comfort people’s own homes. In addition to medically assisted addiction treatment, it also offers online therapy for gambling, eating and other disorders, plus virtual care for co-occurring problems such as anxiety and insomnia.

Ensuring the highest medical standards is key.

“We don’t do anything that hasn’t been tested in a clinical trial,” said Robin McIntosh, co-CEO and co-Founder, Workit Health. “We retain around 83% of people after 30 days and over 50% at six months, which is very high. It isn’t that we are doing anything incredibly special – but we are providing an experience that is as easy to use as Instagram or another app.”

The realisation that the intuitive technology behind successful smartphone apps could be leveraged to help people with addiction and mental health issues came to McIntosh and Workit co-Founder Lisa McLaughlin after they met at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting in Oakland.

The COVID-19 pandemic has been an important moment in the evolution of telemedicine, as doctors and patients have turned to online tools to maintain regular interactions. Medical experts are taking notice.

“There’s much more of an evidence base now behind digital mental health care,” said Ilina Singh, Professor of Neuroscience & Society at the University of Oxford. “I work a lot in low- and middle-income countries so I hope that it will expand into that setting as well.”

Creating sustainable fashionSupporting urban refugeesTreating addiction and mental health issues

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