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The Street Store. Picture: Supplied
The Street Store. Picture: Supplied

The climate clock tells us we have five years left to limit global warming to 1.5 °C. The seconds tick by, ominously revealing the damage we’ve already caused, and continue to inflict, on our only planet. All around us, and all over the world, millions of people live in poverty and cannot take for granted where their next meal will come from, never mind what to wear on their backs. Yet we can all make a positive difference.

While huge, multibillion-dollar investments into decarbonising the economy as well as long-term sustainable economic interventions to uplift the poor are obviously crucial, creative ideas can go a step further, because they hold the keys to unlocking involvement — even activism — in people all over the world. By democratising access to creative platforms and movements at scale, people can play a tangible role in driving real change.

Think about this. When someone says creativity, the mind may wander to images of interesting art and moving music, or to the humanities department of your favourite university. Yes, these are all manifestations of creativity, but at its core, creativity in the context of business and marketing, or in tackling social and environmental challenges, is about solving problems. It’s about observing, landing on the right questions and finding compelling answers. A good idea has legs far beyond its genesis.

The Street Store. Picture: Supplied
The Street Store. Picture: Supplied

How does this look in the real world? About four years after launching M&C Saatchi Abel we landed on the concept of the Steet Store. The status quo at the time was to drop clothes off at a shelter and then to leave it to others to dispense the charity, as it were. The Street Store became the world’s first rent-free, premises-free free pop-up clothing store for the homeless. In this store, people would choose what they wanted and wouldn’t be asked to accept a hand-me-down. They could choose good clothes — clothes that could be suitable for a job interview, for instance.

Fast forward a decade, and The Street Store is now estimated to have benefited more than 1-million people worldwide. It was awarded gold in the design category at the Cannes Lions Festival of Creativity and was recognised as a Best World-Changing Idea in the EMEA region by Fast Company USA. Perhaps its biggest accolade lies in how it has been sustained and embraced across the globe.

Fast fashion has a bigger effect on the planet than aviation and shipping combined

But those accolades are not the point. All they do is confirm that it is a good idea. The point, really, is that an idea born of creativity developed legs and has become an open-source global platform so that anyone in the world can run a Street Store in their own town. The Street Store concept exemplifies how creativity can be used as a force for good to move disadvantaged communities forward with dignity. It is an idea that taps into the human spirit globally. It transcends borders, languages and cultures and drives sustainable change. It is powered by ubuntu, because every Street Store in the world relies on people’s generosity of spirit.

If we return to the climate clock, one may wonder how on earth a creative idea can help people from South Africa, Mexico, New Zealand, Ghana, India, Peru, Pakistan, Canada, the US —and anywhere else — work towards stemming the tide.

Over the decade that the Street Store has been growing around the world, fast fashion has expanded exponentially. Yet too few people realise that fast fashion accounts for 10% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. Some garments and their materials may travel around the world several times before the end product is delivered to someone’s home.

Beyond this, fast fashion is responsible for a fifth of wastewater worldwide. According to the UN, it is estimated that one pair of denim jeans requires 1kg of cotton. That sentence, at surface level, doesn’t sound “too bad”, right? Very often, cotton is grown in dry environments, and estimates are that growing 1kg of cotton takes about 7,500l-10,000l of water. This means the water it takes to grow the cotton for a single pair of jeans could have been someone’s drinking water for a decade.

The Street Store. Picture: Supplied
The Street Store. Picture: Supplied

To put the risk of fast fashion into perspective, while the impact of travel and logistics has been widely reported, fast fashion has a bigger effect on the planet than aviation and shipping combined. But it doesn’t end there. The perception of there being more affordable clothing means that people buy more, driving up demand, and this has a knock-on effect up the supply chain. When people buy more than they need and feel that what they’re buying is affordable and more “disposable”, they throw away clothes they have only worn a few times. In the UK alone, 300,000 tonnes of clothes end up in landfills every year.

The Street Store, which is built on the concept of recycling good clothing in a sharing culture, is appealing in that it gives people around the world a platform to drive change amid fast fashion’s assault on the planet. Street Store provides people with an opportunity to address an important social challenge — clothing the less fortunate with dignity — through the circular economy, which in turn pushes back against the culture of excess and waste and an immense carbon footprint. There is no doubt this is contributing to the sustained growth of the Street Store around the world. One idea, multiple impacts.

People, at their core, are good. The spirit of ubuntu spreads far beyond SA’s borders. Creativity, when harnessed to solve challenges, becomes the conduit for this basic truth of the human spirit. It is a clarion call for us all to strive to unleash creativity as a force for good, because one good idea can drive immense impact, at scale, globally.

Mike Abel is the executive chair of M&C Saatchi Group South Africa.

The big take-out:

We need to unleash creativity as a force for good, because one good idea can drive immense impact, at scale, globally.

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