All the plastic ever made still exists somewhere on the planet, yet we are still making huge amounts – over 300 billion kilos a year. That’s a tower stretching to the moon and back 25 times from plastic bottles alone. If we continue plastic production at this rate there will be more plastic than fish in the oceans by 2050 according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.
Today’s changemakers are a different breed to those who have come before. Across the world, the online generation is beginning to transform communities and economies — and they’re bringing new values and new ways of working with them. So what can businesses learn from these 21st-century citizens?
Last month, Leonoor Leus organised the first Vegan Street Festival in her hometown of Brussels. She and a friend came up with the concept over drinks and the idea snowballed quickly. “It was originally going to be a really small festival — just a couple of hundred people getting to know each other. Then the Facebook event went online and it just blew up: from 2,000 people to almost 50,000 saying they were interested,” she explains. “The day itself was even more beyond our expectations. Around 10,000 people attended. There was food, music and great energy.”
As a vegan and a Brussels native herself, Leus was keen to capture the energy of the city’s growing vegan community in a festival. “People are becoming more and more interested in healthier food and more sustainable ways of feeding ourselves. You see interest in veganism popping up in cities all over Europe and the world,” Leus says. “Then you see Brussels and it’s really lagging behind. It’s still very hard for a vegan to find good food and the places that offer vegan options aren’t always open at night. The festival helped people understand that there is a movement for plant-based diets in Brussels and that it’s worth, for example, starting a business in this space if it’s something you feel passionate about.
The Vegan Street Festival is a prime example of how millennials are joining together to change the conversation in their cities using digital tools. But traditional forces can too often be a barrier to achieving community-led events like this one. “The most difficult part was getting the approval of the city. When we first asked them for a location, they felt it would be too much competition for local businesses. So I had to go and talk to them, plead my case that it was important to have a central location and that we were going to integrate local shops and restaurants into our plans,” Leus explains.
Brussels is a city known as the heart of Europe and Leus is not the only citizen looking to make positive change. Brussels Together is a collective that supports citizen-led projects and promotes the reimagining of the city from the bottom up with values of transparency, inclusiveness and experimentation. It acts as an umbrella for groups like Vegan Brussels, which Leus worked with to organise the festival, providing a platform for citizens to engage in fundraising and crowdfunding activities to support their projects. By doing so, it reduces duplicated effort by helping citizens share their passion and knowledge with others, and helping groups make their voice heard.
“Brussels Together has allowed me to do a lot more with the festival than I anticipated. Starting up your own brand and business in Belgium is still kind of difficult in the bureaucratic sense, but Brussels Together helped us accomplish what we wanted without us having to take as many risks as we thought,” Leus explains. “We had a very good team of volunteers who wanted to make this happen. Having an umbrella organisation is great for connecting with others who want to support or otherwise be involved.”
For businesses and their leaders, there is much to learn from these grassroots movements and the enthusiasm they’re able to harness. Here are three key benefits to getting involved:
Building a positive brand
Engaging with positive grassroots campaigns in the local area can help companies stand out from the pack as future-facing and values-driven organisations. It’s possible to raise brand awareness through engaging with projects that are receiving a lot of attention and utilise opportunities to promote a company’s involvement through PR and marketing activities, offering a range of benefits in terms of building a positive brand. In the case of looking to open offices in new locations, engaging with activities in a town or city before you launch can help open doors in the business community and make the company name more recognisable to the public.
Attracting young talent
Research shows that millennials value purpose over profit both in their working lives and in terms of the brands they like. This attitude means that companies must demonstrate a strong ethos and a meaningful mission if they are to attract the best young talent and remain competitive in today’s recruitment landscape. By paying attention to what’s happening on the ground in their locations, it’s possible for businesses to understand what’s important to potential workers — without the heavy costs involved with market research and developing bespoke advertising campaigns — and integrate this learning into their talent strategy.
Corporate social responsibility
Most companies today put aside budget to spend on raising the environmental and social wellbeing of the communities they’re part of, known as corporate social responsibility. Yet it can be difficult to identify and connect with projects that align well with a company’s values, and doing so can be costly in terms of time and resources. By looking to citizen-led, grassroots movements, the process of finding positive projects to work with becomes easier and less expensive. Donations to non-profit projects are often tax-deductible, meaning that companies can reap the tax benefits of getting involved too.
As the first online generation enter their prime working and spending years all across the world, the social and economic landscape of the cities they live in is changing fast — and the businesses that choose to engage will be best positioned to reap the rewards in future.