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Sharing uniform, building movements

I’ve recently been reading about frugal innovation, as a session on circular economy that I’ll be running later this year for students at Leeds Beckett University explores is part of a course which is based around the concept of frugality.

Ahead of reading his book, yesterday I had a watch of a RSA talk by Charles Leadbeater.

As I explored in this post about Jugaad Innovation, a lot of the principles behind the concept of frugal innovation appeal to me, and come naturally (and often out of necessity) to us in the work we do in our social enterprise.

The talk above is from eight years ago, and it’s striking to reflect on how the theme around constraints — particularly around use of finite natural resources — is even more vital now amidst a Climate Emergency.

I’ll share more thoughts once I’ve read the book, but one idea that I found particularly interesting was around how to achieve greater impact, with a frugal mindset.

It’s something we think a lot about in our work, as most social entrepreneurs do.

How do you scale up?

We’ve never quite worked out how to take our very successful Leeds-based Empty Homes Doctor service to other places — in part because our potential customers (local councils) are all skint, but also because we haven’t as yet landed on the business model for taking it elsewhere.

It’s been a big issue in the 20 years I’ve been involved in social enterprise — with all sorts of ideas around social franchising and the like, but with few real successes to point to.

But perhaps there are good reasons why we struggle to work out how to scale up?

In his talk, Charles talks about spread rather than scale — in other words, think like a movement.

This immediately makes more sense to me, particularly for Zero Waste Leeds and Leeds School Uniform Exchange.

Since launching the project 18 months ago, we’ve supported close to 100 exchanges to set up in Leeds — with around 90% of schools now covered by an exchange.

The model we went for was based around establishing a network of hyperlocal exchanges — based around a school or a local community, and run by volunteers, either online or through an established local community group.

Our role is to support people to get going, to offer them top tips on what works (and what doesn’t) and to help to spread the word so that they can get more people local to them swapping school uniform.

In frugal innovation terms, it’s about spreading the concept, more than scaling it up.

We can achieve so much more by supporting people across Leeds to get on and do things themselves, rather than us doing something centrally.

That sense of local ownership matters — and as is explored in the talk, a model based around spread rather than scale often brings other benefits alongside the main impact that you’re aiming to have (in this case, sharing more school uniform).

Charles talks about the conviviality he often sees in initiatives that adopt this mindset — and this is definitely something we see in our work.

As I explored in this post on nurturing a generous city, the connections we make with eachother when we share stuff, or when we come together to make something happen where we live, can be as valuable as the act of sharing itself.

And when it comes to uniform reuse, we continue to do all we can to achieve more impact, more quickly.

The benefits are obvious, both in terms of social impacts (primarily families on low incomes having easy access to good quality, free uniform) and environmental impacts (clothing kept in use for longer, rather than being thrown away).

The affordability of school uniform is a big issue — and schools will soon be required to ensure that families have an opportunity to access good quality second hand uniform, alongside buying more affordable new uniform, as outlined in this Government press release:

To support families, schools will have to make sure second-hand uniforms are available, also helping work towards achieving net zero carbon emissions. In the UK, an estimated 350,000 tonnes of clothes end up in landfill every year and encouraging families to use second-hand uniform can reduce waste and bring down emissions from manufacturing new garments, while making it cost-effective for families.

Our approach, based around movement building, focused on finding local people and organisations who can set up an exchange near them, is an ideal way to make school uniform reuse the norm across the UK.

We’re showing it can work in Leeds. And we’re convinced it’s an idea that can spread right across the country.

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