Keeping Voluntary Work Sustainable

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Creating true global prosperity, even starting on a much smaller scale, can only be achieved through the ongoing investments we make in time, energy, and creative collaboration. While it’s true that we have incredible collective resources with which to solve problems and create beauty, it is equally true that the deep investments required to create come at a cost. It can be all-too-easy to lose our sense of balance in the work. The resulting chronic lack of energy or burnout not only hurts ourselves it impacts those around us and can slow the momentum of the post-growth movement itself. That’s why I believe that finding ways to balance deep engagement with healthy self-care must be at the foundation of our work if we are to create post-growth futures for ourselves and our communities.

The Dual Reality of Deep Engagement

We’ve all seen the research briefs about the health benefits of connectedness and the way that giving boosts our brain chemistry. And beyond the research, many of us have experienced firsthand the many benefits of deep engagement with meaningful projects. This has certainly been true in my work as a social justice community organizer in rural Oregon. For me the benefits range from the satisfaction of aligning my personal values with my work, watching culture shift in positive directions and knowing I was part of it, the joy of co-creating beauty, or simply the sense of community and the learning that happen along the way. But I have also witnessed in myself and others the painful realities of over-commitment. Taking on too much or not allowing for enough time off inevitably leads to low energy, blocked creativity, poor health, and poor performance. What’s worse, these signs of fatigue are often normalized or even praised in community-based work where they can be mistaken for signs of commitment.

The reality of how much energy voluntary work demands is important to recognize, and not just on a conceptual level. It takes personal awareness to notice whether we are on a sustainable path in the work we do, but I find that the biggest challenge is finding a way to keep myself from hitting a low in the first place. Why is it so difficult to find a balanced and sustainable way to be deeply involved in the voluntary work we love?

It’s Not About Time Management

image of diary overfilled with appointments

I believe that part of the struggle lies in the frameworks we use to try and balance our lives effectively; the primary one being that of “time management.” When someone asks you if you have time to help with a project, if you are like me, you immediately start scanning your mental calendar for openings. This is problematic from the start. I can usually “fit something in,” but the result can be a too-packed day or week. The immediate impact of this “tight schedule” means that I don’t have time to mentally switch gears or prepare between things, and it usually undermines my ability to be present and listen well. But when this goes on too long, even if I am involving myself in work that I love, my energy levels get too low to really be engaged or contribute in a meaningful way. Left unchecked it is our productivity, health, and relationships that suffer.

New Frame: Energy Management

A few years ago I came across the idea of energy management as an alternative to the time management concept that I’ve struggled with. This made such intuitive sense to me and was easy to apply. Start by re-framing the question “do you have time to take on X project” into “do you have the energy to take on X project?” It becomes immediately clear that finding an hour or two of “time” in your schedule doesn’t really answer the question. In fact, re-framing from time management to energy management transforms the blank spaces on your calendar from “free time” to potentially important energy management blocks used re-charge your energy levels.

While I can still get myself into trouble by taking on too much, I find that thinking in terms of energy is more helpful in staying in tune with myself and making realistic predictions of my own capacity. But this isn’t really just about avoiding becoming overwhelmed. The exciting potential of this concept is the power it can unleash in our lives, our work, our creative projects, our organizations. For me it is about the way that I feel and what I can accomplish when I’m fully charged.

Try it: Make an energy management plan for the coming week, or for a big project you are working on. Here’s a list of questions I often ask myself when planning for energy management:

  • Check in: What is my energy level now, or over the past month? (If you’re not sure, try asking a co-worker, friend, or partner.)
  • Did I leave space in my schedule to breathe, reflect, create, love, and deal with the unexpected without creating a crisis?
  • Will this week’s to-do list lower my ability to give in other areas: family, other important work, creative projects?
  • Is the flow of energy outputs and inputs fairly even throughout the week? If not, how can I re-balance my schedule?
  • What is my plan B if I start to feel low energy part-way through? (I find it helpful to make a list of things that energize me so I can take a quick “re-charge” break if needed.)

When considering taking on something new:

  • Why am I considering taking on this new commitment? Are my motivations healthy? What are alternatives?
  • When I consider accepting this responsibility, what is my gut reaction?
  • Do I know enough about this new commitment to evaluate the energy it will require? What questions do I need to answer before I can truly evaluate it?
  • Do I need to balance this addition by removing something else from my responsibilities?
  • Do I need to create more time to “re-charge” in my schedule to balance this new responsibility?
  • Will this new project energize me?

Energy management leadership: Try this with your volunteers or employees this week. Make the kinds of inquiries needed to ensure that you are supporting those around you to engage deeply, contribute authentically, and take care of themselves too.

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This article was originally published on the Post Growth Institute blog.


Michelle Glass is a social justice community organizer with a passion for empowering people and rural communities, and challenging social structures that perpetuate inequality. Her background is in rural organizing, women’s rights, healthcare, green jobs, and housing. She holds a bachelor of arts in sociology and is currently completing a Master in Management (MIM) degree at Southern Oregon University.


How to Run an ASK (Activist Skills & Knowledge) Session

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Marc Hudson is a climate change activist who worked as a health care professional for 12 years. He is about to commence a PhD on how the coal industry has responded to the threat of climate change. 

In this article, adapted from the one originally published at Ask for the World, Marc runs us through how to structure an ASK session, based on his experience of having done this a number of times. He advises, though, to figure out what works for you and adapt the structure accordingly.

cartoon character for novice  cartoon character for practitioner  cartoon character for expert  cartoon character for ninja

Session Introduction

Thank everyone for coming, and announce:

This is going to be a session about how we find out who in the room has what skills, and how we can find out what skills we DON’T have, but would like to have.  The tools we’ll use are really simple, there is no need for special equipment.  Most of all, if there is anything you like from what we do in the next hour – take it. Steal it. Don’t ask for our permission. Change it, adapt it, do with it as you will.

The assumptions for this session are:

  • you have a group of people who have chosen to come to the workshop or are ‘up for it’ as part of their attendance at a day of workshops/conferences ie. resistance to doing new stuff is minimal
  • you have a big enough room for people to move around in, and flat, not tiered

Exercise 1 – Skills Stocktake

This exercise helps the group discover who has and wants what skills. It should take 10 minutes or less, depending on the size of the group.

As people are mingling and chatting, walk around the room handing out a coloured sheet of A5 paper and a white sheet of paper. You don’t have to explain what they are for – an air of mystery can help!

When everyone has their papers, announce to the group:

Let’s find out some of the skills we have in the room! Write down something you’re good at on the white paper and something you’d LIKE to be good at on the coloured bit of paper. Write in big block letters – other people have to see what you’ve written.

Then we are going to hold the sheets up and walk around seeing if anyone gets a match.

If we do get a match, shout and wave your arms. And swap contact details.

Kit Required

White and coloured paper. Markers. Space.

Facilitator Notes

There will be a little bewilderment/resistance from some people. A positive/confident manner can usually overcomes this.

People will also lurk around the edges – it’s for you to decide whether/how much to cajole folks. Some are crippled by admitting that they are good at something. Or want to be.

One way that fear is managed is people clumping with the first person they meet and getting chatting. Again, it’s for you to decide if/how to (gently!) break that up. A simple ‘Keep circulating, everyone’ may be sufficient.

Additionally, if you have time/it feels right, encourage people to pass on the names of anyone has the skills written on coloured paper to those holding those papers (‘Ooh, you should speak to x, they’re really good at that’).

Collect the bits of paper, and arrange them in white and coloured piles.

Exercise 2 – Minglers 

Minglers is a short exercise of 5-10 minutes, and can be conducted using one or a number of criteria, such as date of birth, height (with the proviso that if you’ve got someone in a wheelchair, make sure they are cool with that), how far participants have travelled to be there etc.

For example, you could use ‘date of birth’ for this exercise. You’d get people to sort themselves in order from those born on 1st January standing at one end of the room, to those born on 31st December at the other. Ask if anyone has the same date of birth, or what is the smallest gap between dates of birth? The idea is to get people interacting with people they don’t know and break up that clumping!

Kit Required


Facilitator Notes

Some people are allergic to this stuff, see it as a waste of time or cheesy corporate icebreaker sort of thing. Keep an eye on what the engagement/resistance levels are.

The people who will be interested are ones who struggle to come up with ice-breakers that aren’t really boring or complicated.

I suggest saying something like:

When you go to meetings you usually see all the people who know each other clumped together and a whole bunch of people who don’t know anyone wandering around. Those don’t-know-anyones are future leaders, future doers. But if they don’t meet anyone at the ‘meeting’, they often don’t come back again. That’s a tragedy for the movement. Things like these ice-breakers can piss off established activists, who think they are pointless because they already know half the people in the room. But they can be brilliant for the people who only know one person, or nobody. You have to ask yourself; as a facilitator, who are you there to serve – the ones who are comfortable, who will be coming back again no matter what, or the new people?

Exercise 3 – Novice Lines

This exercise is to help people know where they are, and where they would like to be in relation to a certain skill.

Clear a space so that everyone can line up, shoulder to shoulder, with enough space for them all to step forward as much as four paces, safely. If you’ve got too many people, some may have to watch the others do it.

Announce to the line:

You’re on what I call ‘the novice line.’ We’re going to find out who in the room has what skills, and we’re going to do it really quickly, and it will be fun. Honest.

Let’s take cooking for example.

If you are a novice cook you can just about boil an egg without burning the water.

Hold up the generic “novice” icon, and put it on the ground one pace ahead.

If you’re a practitioner, it means you can cook for 2 or 3 people, following a recipe book and sweating a little bit.

Hold up the ‘practitioner’ icon, and put it on the ground two paces ahead.

If you’re an expert, you can cook most things without a cook book, for a bunch of people, and there’s a fight for seconds.

Hold up the ‘expert’ icon, and put it on the ground three paces ahead.

If the phone rings and it’s one of your activist friends who says. ‘There are 20 of us. We’ve just done this amazing action – turn on the radio!! We’re arriving in two hours and we’ll be really hungry. Three of us are vegan, two are gluten intolerant and three of us MUST EAT meat. There’s 80 quid hidden in the cookie jar. Can you do it?’

If you say ‘well duh, what else you need doing at the same time?’ then you, my friend, are a ninja.

Hold up the ‘ninja’ icon, and put it on the ground four pace ahead.

Any questions?

Deal with them. The usual one is ‘what if I am not even a novice?’ – answer is ‘stay where you are.’

‘Three things. First this is NOT a judgement – you are under NO obligation to advance your skills. If you are happy as a novice or a practitioner, why should you bust a gut upping your skills, unless you want to?

Second, be honest – don’t boast and don’t be falsely modest. The more truthful you are, the more everyone benefits.

Finally, keep your eyes closed as you choose where you are, so you aren’t affected by other people’s assessments of themselves.

Everyone got it? Right, close your eyes, decide where you are going to move to on cooking, open your eyes, and… go!

There will be a good spread of people. Once everyone has stood where they are going to stand, say the following. 

Remember, the person who is best able to help you is probably NOT the ninja – they have forgotten what it is like not to know something. It’s probably the person who is just a step or two ahead of you.

Optional – you can ask the people who’ve stepped forward furthest how they developed their skills, how they keep them fresh, any advice they would offer to youngsters.  Only do it if you have time, and if the people who’ve stood far forward seem keen to share.

People tend to instantly get what you are doing, so it becomes super-quick after that first one.

Get them back on the novice line and select one of the white paper sheets (at least someone in the room will be counting themselves as an expert or ninja).

Once you’ve done a couple, announce that you are swapping to the coloured sheets.

If there is nobody who steps beyond practitioner you can say:

Right. Let’s not panic just because there’s no-one in this room with that skill. The movement is – I hope – bigger than this room. I want you all to think for a second about anybody who you know who has this skill who can be bribed or blackmailed into helping other people gain that skill. Got someone? Now step forward to where you think they would step forward to…

If there is time and energy in the room, ask for a volunteer to have a go at running a novice line.  I’ve done this a couple of times, it’s gone well, and it’s de-mystified the process, giving people a sense that there’s nothing special to it.

Kit Required

Instruction card (written out)

Big images of the novice to ninja.

Facilitator Notes

Not everyone will have the same hearing. Not everyone will have the same language skills. Not everyone will have the enthusiasm. If people dip out, don’t chase them!
Also, the first time you do it is perhaps a little complicated, but everyone very quickly understands it.

Your doubts – and your enthusiasm – will be contagious.

Exercise 4 – Novice Lines & Skills Matching

This exercise is to use ‘Novice Lines’ to see what skills would be needed to do Action ‘x’ and what skills people have. It should take 15 minutes or so.

Get people into groups of three (up to you if you do it by counting out, geography, interest or let them do it themselves!)

Have them briefly introduce themselves to each other.

Have them think of an ‘action’ (could be letter writing campaign, or a demonstration, or making a website or a report)

Have them make a list of all the skills that are needed to make that happen. Get them to prioritise those skills in a (rough) ranking of essential, needed in most circumstances, nice to have.

Get them to write those down on the left hand side of the self-audit assessment sheet.

Then get them to rate themselves on those skills, all on the same sheet. They will quickly see what skills they have and are lacking.

If there is time for feedback by each of the small groups to the wider group, keep it very tight so that energy stays high.

Our group decided to imagine we were going to do [activity]

The top three skills we felt were needed for that were [list skills needed]

In our group we had [list skills people have]

We didn’t have [list skills the group wanted but didn't have].

Kit Required


Scrap paper

The ‘self-audit assessment sheet’

novice lines grid from novice to ninja

Facilitator Notes

This only took a few minutes, but was perhaps the most useful bit – people began to see how Activist Skills and Knowledge could be easily and usefully put into practice. If your groups are bigger than three, some people may well be isolated, on the fringes while extroverts compete for the group’s attention.

Specific groups can get ‘lost’ or focus too much, or over-think it. Remind them it’s a simple-ish two-step process. Brainstorm the skills you need, then prioritise.

Exercise 5 - Feedback  (optional)

Use a brief (no more than 10 minutes) feedback session to find out:

What did people like? What didn’t they like?

What would they have liked more time for/less time on?

What suggestions/improvements do they have?

Encourage them to take it and use the bits that work for them.

I always like to have anonymous feedback forms. But it’s also good if you leave the room and encourage people to talk among themselves for five minutes about what was good, what they’d do differently. Then come back in and answer any questions folks have.

Kit Required

Time. Anonymous feedback forms (optional)

Facilitator Notes

By now, everyone will have had enough, and be thinking about their next workshop/a cup of coffee.  Still their insights are crucial, both to the project and to you as a facilitator.

headshot of Marc Hudson

Marc Hudson is a climate change activist who worked as a health care professional for 12 years. He is starting a PhD on how the coal industry has responded to the threat of climate change. He believes that social movements are the species’ only chance, but that those social movements can’t rely on being right(eous) as a strategy.

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Strategic Reasons Why Values Matching is a Good Idea

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square box not fitting in round hole

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Different framings for action on climate change and nature/environment gain more or less traction across the UK population depending on whether they mainly just appeal to Pioneers, or also to Prospectors and Settlers. This could be described as uplift for propositions, gained by ‘values matching’.

However some pundits, academics and campaigners argue that matching action-propositions to people’s values is not a good idea. For example writer George Monbiot has recently published two blogs ( and in The Guardian, both based on the work of group ‘Common Cause’, which takes this position.

They (invariably Pioneers) are concerned that it might reinforce ‘the wrong’ (Prospector or Settler) values. They fear that this, in turn, might affect ‘society’s values’. The ‘wrong values’ they identify are typically about a desire for power, acquiring material wealth, and ‘self-interest’. Better then to try and change people’s values so that they are ‘good’: altruistic, global, benevolent, universalist?  From this mind-set, matching offers or asks to people’s values is a bad idea if it includes the ‘bad’ values. They do not accept that, as Saul Alinsky famously said, ‘with very rare exceptions, the right things are done for the wrong reasons’, and that ‘it is futile to demand that men do the right thing for the right reason – this is a fight with a windmill. It then follows that they do not accept that the right outcomes can sometimes only be obtained by getting support of people who do not share your own values.

I do not agree and have written about why in previous newsletters. This can become a tedious and tangled debate. Common Cause and their supporters like to talk about ‘extrinsic’ and ’intrinsic’ values, whereas CDSM divides any population into three Maslow Groups (Settler – Security Drive; Prospector, Outer Directed; Pioneer, Inner Directed, and within them, 12 Values Modes). It is not always clear whether we are talking about the same thing and certainly not in the same terms. Both sides acknowledge the work of Shalom Schwartz but draw different conclusions from it. CDSM’s approach is mainly empirical; Common Cause is more theoretical. We believe the evidence suggests Maslow was right and that if people meet their unmet needs they change (in improving conditions/ good life experiences, from Settler to Prospector to Pioneer). Common Cause seems to think not. 

In addition, Common Cause seems to advocate talking about values to change them, whereas we have found this will tend to lead to disagreements which entrench values differences rather than change them. We have found that people are largely unaware of their motivational values: they feel like ‘common sense’. Common Cause wants to talk about values to change behaviours. We think that you cannot do that very easily, if at all, and it is more effective to change the behaviours. And so on.

Myself, the people at Common Cause and Mr Monbiot are all environmentalists. We probably have a similar idea of how the world really ought to be in terms of environmental quality and impacts. We just have a different view about how to get there.

All that said, I usually try to avoid this debate for two reasons. First, unlike some of the potential antagonists, nobody is paying me to take part in it and I can’t afford the time. Second, the main proponents of the ‘improve the people’ argument are themselves articulating a set of values most clearly expressed in the Concerned Ethical Values Mode, and no amount of analytical evidence is likely to make any difference. Although they might not accept it, what I have seen of the many research projects we have conducted using the CDSM ‘Values Modes’ system convinces me that they are driven by a largely unconscious need to find ‘ethical clarity’ and so will want to reject any route to change which is not ethically the best possible option.

I’d suggest there are a number of practical strategic reasons why values-matching is a fundamentally sensible strategy in the circumstances faced by most campaign groups today.

1. The Maths

Most campaign groups are dominated by Pioneers (Inner Directed) and are operating in societies where the majority of people do not share their values. In China, for example, over 70% of the population measured by the CDSM values segmentation (which includes use of Shalom Schwartz’s internationally verified question-set) is Outer Directed i.e. in CDSM’s parlance, Prospectors, which groups like Common Cause and advocates like George Monbiot would see as having ‘extrinsic values’.

This ‘Maslow Group’ is the largest in every one of ten societies we have surveyed for Greenpeace, except the US.

The ‘Pioneers’ on the other hand are in a minority in every country and in all cases (except the US) make up less than a third of the population. To take a rudimentary example, if there was a need to gain majority support for an idea, just appealing to ‘Pioneer’ values such as self-direction, universalism, benevolence, ethics and a global view of the importance of nature, would be a recipe for failure. There are of course many instances in which a majority of some sort is a desirable objective.

2. Signals of Feasibility

In democracies, and indeed in societies which are not ‘properly’ democratic but where rulers and decision-makers are aware that they need to have or appear to have ‘popular support’, many important policy decisions depend on showing that an idea is broadly supported, whether actively so, or simply accepted without much opposition. Achieving this typically means going beyond the Pioneers.

In contrast, generating a values-divided public debate generally sends the opposite message: that this is an intractable problem. Instead campaigns need to generate signs that the change they advocate is feasible, achievable and so offer decision-makers some sort of popularity reward.

3. The Decision-makers

Not all decision-makers are Pioneers. In the UK, for example, most people working full time for companies or other organisations are Prospectors. Nor are all politicians or officials Pioneers. For an idea to feel right and work for them, it needs to resonate with their values. Being told they are wrong-people and should adopt your demands based on your conflicting values is not likely to work but it will give them confidence that your proposal is wanting.

4.  The Doers

Contrary to what some Pioneers may assume, some of those most likely to act to support the changes they want are not Pioneers but Prospectors. Of these, the Now People Prospectors are the ‘bridge’ for new ideas or behaviours between the Pioneers and the Prospectors: they pick up these ideas from the ‘Transcender’ Pioneers.

This transfer is the point at which ‘mainstreaming’ takes place (as an idea becomes fashionable before becoming ‘normal’).  A good example in the UK is renewable energy. For decades almost the only people actively advocating or adopting it (eg. solar) were Pioneers. Now it is being mainstreamed by Prospectors, in businesses such as Gentoo Group (whose values we have surveyed – it is a mainly Prospector but very ‘green’ company with 27,000 solar panels on 2,000 properties in Sunderland and plans for 3,000 more solar homes). While Pioneers tend to agree with ‘good things’ but are so interested in debate and ideas that they may not do much to implement them, Prospectors are the principal doers and implementers of change. Once change mainstreams, Settlers too take it up. So, for example, you can now find homes sporting both solar pv and UKIP posters (UKIP’s core voters are Settler), like this one.

5. Outcomes

Campaigns should be planned backwards from analysing situations and identifying a strategic objective, and then working out a critical path of changes that will get you there. It’s along this path that the need to engage particular audiences, in ways that work with them, arises. Campaigns should not be projected forwards with rhetoric and polemic to advocate a desired outcome.

Many of the ‘moral hazard’ outcomes posited by critics of values-matching only arise if there is no strategy for change beyond advocacy and proselytizing. In reality, rather few campaigns can be won that way. An instrumental campaign built around a strategic critical path should have an objective which, once achieved, makes a strategic difference: a political decision between countries in the form of a treaty; an increase in the sales of a ‘good’ technology to the point where market forces make it inevitable that it will become dominant; or a change in infrastructure or a system that then determines which behaviours are possible or likely. In such cases, the motivations behind the actions become, at best, secondary.

6. Time and Resources

Even if it were true that people strongly driven to achieve power and material wealth were permanently locked into that values set, and even if you could ‘change’ these people without them meeting those needs (neither of which we think is true), campaigners dealing with urgent problems often do not have the time or resources to adopt a change-through-changing-the-people strategy. We have actually measured the values of the populations noted above. In China there are 26.4% who are ‘Golden Dreamers’, the people who most espouse the material + power values that some campaigners see as very ‘wrong’. In India 29.3% are Golden Dreamers and in the UK 15%. In all three countries they are the largest single Values Mode. This means that there are about 360m Chinese and a similar number of Indians who some see as having very much the ‘wrong values’.

Even if there was a way to ‘change’ these people (and some advocate 1:1 encounters), it seems somewhat unlikely that campaign organisations have the means to do so. Take for example, getting a car, or a ‘better’ car. For Golden Dreamers this is likely to be a priority. Persuading Indian Golden Dreamers to want their ‘next car to be an electric one’ rather than a fossil-fuel driven one is not difficult: we know from asking them that 68% say ‘yes’ (probably because ‘electric’ is now ‘fashionable’, seen as desirable and a sign of success). Persuading them to forgo a car altogether would be a very different matter but, from a climate-change point of view, electric cars are a change that the world needs to see, and quickly.

Finally, it sometimes seems that those opposed to ‘values-matching’ think that it means advocating that people should consume more or be more ‘materialistic’. The examples given in ‘Broadening the Appeal of Environmental Action through Values-Framing Uplift’ show that this need not be the case in practice. 

For example, the proposition ‘It is vital to introduce young children to nature’ out-scores ‘we should all care for nature’ by attracting more agreement from Settlers and Prospectors (ie. better matches their values). But this is because it is ‘about children’ and being a (good/better) parent rather than just promoting ‘nature’ and implying personal action. It is not gaining power or material wealth which is the promise here but social success and reinforcement of self-identity. For these groups, being-a-parent does this whereas global ethical universalist care for nature does not.

Similarly, ‘There’s still time to address climate change if we all make quite small and easy changes’ better matches Prospector and Settler values than just asking them to be ‘bothered’ and ‘concerned’ about the environment because agreement requires less self-agency. That’s another way to better match Prospector and Settler values but also does not require endorsement of ‘materialism’.

The main implication for Pioneers is one of self-restraint. Values matching requires them not to lecture or harangue Prospectors and Settlers to see things as Pioneers do, for example to embrace ‘huge and difficult’ changes with little evidence that they can be achieved, or to put ‘nature’ before their children.

headshot of Chris Rose

Chris Rose is an ecologist and communications and campaigns consultant based in the UK, a former director at Greenpeace, campaigner with WWF International and Friends of the Earth, author and host of Campaign Strategy, a free campaign planning website. This article was originally published in Campaign Strategy’s June 2014 Newsletter and has been republished with the author’s permission.

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The Circular Economy and The Access Economy

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infographic 'Disownership is the New Normal'

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What happens to resource efficiency, recycling and waste management in a world where disownership is becoming the new normal?

As much as it may seem that the nuts and bolts of resource and waste management is about sorting machinery, storage, bins and collection systems, it is really ultimately about people.

We know that if people are to use resources mindfully, to manage them well, and to both demand and correctly use appropriate end of life systems, then we need to design systems that they are easy and convenient to use.

There are two ‘muscles’ that can be flexed in relation to resource and waste management – the Circular Economy muscle, and the Access Economy muscle. A lot of muscle-building effort has gone into the former, and the latter is a muscle we’ve only just discovered we can build.

circular economy biological loop - make, consume, enrich; technical loop - make, use return

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The Circular Economy is a concept and model which has been around for some time now, but is increasingly gaining traction – the UK’s leading waste & recycling organisation, WRAP UK have recently rebranded themselves as ‘Circular Economy and Resource Efficiency Experts’.

The Circular Economy seeks to shift activity from a linear to a circular model by making better use of materials, by keeping materials in circulation through reuse and recycling, industrial symbiosis and other efforts to divert material from landfill.

It displaces some demand for new materials, but does not address the rate at which materials enter the circle, as evidenced by total material demand continuing to grow faster than recycling rates improve.

It is vital to maintain a focus on bending the Linear Economy (‘take-make-waste’) into a Circular Economy, but it is not enough.

There is an entire, parallel area of territory yet to be explored, which I will call The Access Economy (aka Sharing Economy, Collaborative Economy) – or being able to access what we need by better using what we already have.

image of a drill - caption 'I do not need a drill - I need a hole in the wall'

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The Access Economy seeks to minimise the demand for materials, and is as – if not more – significant than The Circular Economy. There are also overlaps between the two eg. reuse could be considered Circular and Access.

The rapidly-gaining momentum of the collaborative (aka sharing) economy holds huge potential for addressing how we consume resources, and ways it could result in less waste.

The Access Economy is focused not on managing material at end-of-life, of better managing ‘waste’. It is focused on designing systems that facilitate more efficient, cost effective and in many case, community-enhancing ways of enabling people to meet their needs by tapping what is already available and leveraging idle assets (be they stuff, time, space, skills).

This means looking at the design of our living systems – how we grow food and prepare it; how we clothe and transport ourselves; how we meet our daily needs. We need to look at how we can solve the pain points of people’s lives – cost of living, time poverty –in a way that also delivers on environmental objectives.

The systems for The Access Economy are different from those for The Circular Economy – and significantly they may be more appealing to people who don’t see themselves as ‘green’, or really care about recycling. 

Successfully meeting sustainability challenges means we need to stop focusing on ‘reducing’ and ‘managing’ energy, emissions, water, waste and everything else (which are symptoms, outcomes of how people live) and start looking our systems through a lens of design (not just physical design) and social innovation.

Ultimately, environmental organisations and programs are not really about ‘environment’ at all – they are social innovation, because they set out to create new patterns of behaviour among human beings in order to lessen our impacts on the ecological systems which sustain all life. And social innovation is a design process.

We are now far from the traditional, familiar territory of the Circular Economy, but into an exciting new realm we have scarcely begun to explore that is fast gathering momentum around the world.

What would we be capable of if we combined the existing strength of the Circular Economy with the emerging juggernaut of the Access Economy?

Further references:

Circular Economy – Ellen Macarthur Foundation - a series of articles about the circular economy model, its principles, related schools of thought, and an overview of circular economy news from around the world.

Shareable - an award-winning nonprofit news, action and connection hub for the sharing transformation.

OuiShare - a global community empowering citizens, public institutions and companies to build a society based on collaboration, openness and sharing.

Collaborative Consumption - comprehensive online resource for collaborative consumption worldwide and network for the global community, curating news, content, events, jobs, studies and resources from key media outlets and industry blogs, as well as original content.

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South Australia to Share its Way to Zero Waste

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laptop displaying Share N Save at Campbelltown Produce Swap launch with people in background and produce on table next to computer

This article was written by Cat Johnson and originally published at Shareable.

Sharon Ede, writer of Cruxcatalyst, works for Zero Waste SA, and was the initiator of this project to ‘curate’ the local sharing/collaborative economy. Share N Save is now being actively supported by the South Australian government.

What would a zero waste world look like? One dimension is efficient recycling. But to truly get to zero waste, you’d need to go beyond recycling into reduce and reuse. In South Australia, they’re experimenting with how to take this one step further by adding “avoid” to the top of the waste management hierarchy.

To help avoid, Zero Waste SA created Share N Save, a map of “free stuff, shareable stuff, swappable stuff, community stuff you can borrow.” The site features an interactive maps that shows people to all the sharing services near them and helps communities find ways to avoid buying stuff in the first place.

Shareable recently chatted with Matthew Scales of Zero Waste SA about the importance of building sustainable communities, how they’re introducing people to sharing, and South Australia’s rich history of environmental and social innovation.

screenshot of Browse option in Share N Save

Share N Save helps people connect with sharing services in their neighborhood

Shareable: South Australia has one of the most successful waste diversion programs in the world. What do you attribute the success of the program to?

Matthew Scales: South Australians have a long history of environmental protection and being socially progressive. Since the 1970s we’ve had Container Deposit Legislation (the cash for containers scheme that gives consumers 10¢ for each eligible container returned) – the first state in Australia to have such a scheme. There’s a real pride in this scheme by South Australians and that’s flowed into the support for kerbside recycling systems as well.

Since Zero Waste SA’s establishment in 2004 we’ve worked closely with local government and the waste and recycling industry to refine the kerbside waste collection system resulting in the systems becoming more standardised across the state, with the ‘3 bin system’ being the default for most councils; a bin for organic waste which is sent for composting and turned into a product to enrich soils in one of the driest and most arid areas in Australia, a bin for co-mingled recyclables such as glass, paper and metals and a smaller bin for materials that can’t be recovered that are sent to landfill.

Add to that our relationship with the construction and demolition and commercial and industrial sectors where Zero Waste SA provides education about resource recovery and more efficient waste management practices in the production process as well as funding infrastructure and equipment to recover and recycle more materials more effectively and Australia’s first ban on lightweight plastic shopping bags and you can see the effect of all of Zero Waste SA’s initiatives contribute to our recovery and diversion rates of over 75 percent.

What is the Share N Save project? How did it come about? How does it fit into the Zero Waste program?

The Share N Save website is effectively a mapping website for collaborative consumption and sharing activities in South Australia. It’s the first of its kind in Australia and it helps South Australians discover local groups, events and activities to help with the cost of living, to connect with their local community and to avoid resources being wasted. The Share N Save website maps activities like toy libraries, community gardens, collective cooking groups and community produce swaps. It also takes in bike sharing, nappy libraries and things like Men’s Sheds.

At Zero Waste SA we’re interested in promoting sustainability on a level that goes far deeper than just concern for our use of resources and the physical environment, and focusing on sustainable communities and sustainable societies. We’re picturing the kind of neighbourhoods we want to live and work in, and that is a neighbourhood that is connected, resource efficient and compassionate.

The waste management hierarchy in South Australia places “avoid” ahead of reduce, reuse and recycle. This is a vital aspect of the sharing economy: that we don’t need to buy everything we need. Can you talk about the importance of this approach and how it’s being received?

‘Avoidance’ is so hard to target. It’s (relatively speaking) easy to explain to a householder what to do with a glass jar once it’s empty to ensure it doesn’t go to landfill, or help a business look at reducing their waste management costs by being smarter with their resources but what do you do to encourage people in our fast moving, consumer goods-driven society to actually buy less stuff? It’s an easy goal to identify as the top of the list in terms of the Waste Management Hierarchy because with less consumption comes less waste, less resource use, less energy and water use. But the question is, how do we do target that goal?

We started looking at the sharing movement and collaborative consumption as a great fit for that challenge. As the saying goes “You don’t need a drill, you just need a hole in the wall.” So, how can we as a society get access to make the hole without owning the drill? Collaborative consumption fits that bill. And not just issues of ownership are addressed through this, but core values of Zero Waste SA around avoiding valuable resources being sent to landfill.

When summer harvest time kicks in here in a few months time we’re looking at suburban backyards burgeoning with fruit and vegetables – but how many pears can you realistically eat and preserve? Sharing through food swaps and collaborative cooking firstly gets you access to a wider variety of produce at no to low cost and secondly stops your excess going to waste. Mapping and fostering this kind of behaviour goes to the heart of the principles of avoidance.

As an extension of South Australia’s Zero Waste initiative, Share N Save is in a great position to not only help people cut down their waste, but introduce them to the other benefits of sharing: building community, saving money, saving resources etc. What has the response been to some of these benefits of Share N Save that extend beyond waste reduction? Any unexpected responses or results?

Reconnecting with your local community has benefits well beyond just waste reduction. The State Government in South Australia has identified key areas in which to focus to improve our state which include:

  • giving our children every chance to achieve their potential in life
  • keeping our communities safe and our citizens healthy
  • building our reputation for premium food and wine
  • creating a vibrant city that energises and excites
  • keeping our high quality of life affordable for everyone.

Looking at that list, fostering the sharing movement and a culture of collaborative consumption is crucial for tackling those goals. Sharing can be seen as the blueprint to how we can start to address those priorities.

How could you keep life affordable for South Australians? Through sharing access to what you have to get what you need.

How would you keep your community safer? By being more connected with your neighbours, by engaging with those who are marginalised or disenfranchised, by providing those in need with access to the excess of others (for example through initiatives funded by Zero Waste SA to redistribute food like Oz Harvest and Foodbank)

screenshot of Map option in Share N Save

The interactive aspect of Share N Save is really exciting. I think it’s important for people to have access, not just to a list of available services, but to see what’s going on near them. What are the benefits of having the services mapped in this way?

Having a real-time map of your area is what keeps the content fresh and what we call hyper-local. It’s great to see the kind of activities taking place around the state but what personalises this and what drives the community to take the next step and connect with an activity in their area is that a map like this allows people to say “Hey, that’s just around the corner from me and I never knew it”.

Share N Save emphasizes the ground-up, community aspect of sharing and the power of communities to transform themselves in small, but meaningful, ways. What’s your big picture vision for this project? What would be the ideal outcome be?

Firstly, our goal is to map every single existing sharing activity already taking place in South Australia – and each time we present to a community group or different organisation people say “Oh have you spoken to those guys?” or “You should list this activity” and we unearth more content for the site, so in a year from now hopefully we’ll have twice the amount of content we do now and we’ll have a greater amount of activities in regional areas.

Secondly, we want to move towards one-to-one sharing. Right now we’re still in the phase of proving the concept and raising awareness in the sharing movement, and about what the current site does in connecting groups to groups and individuals to groups or activities. But we see no reason the site can’t move towards users registering to share and borrow on a much bigger and more personal scale.

If we can achieve that, we’d see South Australia emerge as one of the places the world intrinsically associated with the sharing economy and collaborative consumption. We also hope that through connecting South Australians using our site to resources on sites like Shareable and OuiShare they get inspired by what’s happening around the world and start activities up that aren’t being done in South Australia yet or even better they dream up ideas in the sharing space that aren’t being done anywhere yet.

Given South Australia’s reputation for being thought leaders and pioneers on environmental issues and issues of social progression (it’s not just our ‘firsts’ in terms of the environment like the plastic bag ban or deposits on containers; in 1894 South Australia was the first state in Australia to give women the right to vote and the first place in the world to allow women to run for office) we hope that the next big idea in the sharing movement that transforms sharing or transforms the technology we use to facilitate it is one from a person right here South Australia.

headshot of Cat

Cat Johnson is a freelance writer focused on community, the commons, sharing, collaboration and music. Publications include Utne Reader, GOOD, Yes! Magazine, Shareable, Triple Pundit and Lifehacker. She’s also a musician, longtime record store supervisor, chronic list maker and aspiring minimalist.

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