From Waste to Wealth: Developing & Financing an Urban Wood Economy, Part 2
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This is the second article in a two part series; read the first article here.
“Waste is a verb, not a noun.” This is a phrase worth remembering when it comes to urban wood. As we explored in our first post, urban wood is part of a complex system with linkages to a suite of social, economic, and environmental issues. Solving complex problems requires a systems type of solution. Developing an urban wood economy means examining the complexity of a wide-ranging socio-economic-environmental system and trying to recognize challenges as opportunities; trying to identify the points in the system where “waste” exists and recognizing that we can turn this waste into other verbs – reusing, renewing, revitalizing – wood, lives, and communities. This becomes ever more possible when we move beyond considering only what’s in our own domain, and partner across sectors and domains – we can begin to recognize opportunities for employment, revenues, avoided costs, and ecological restoration. A socially innovative approach to urban wood embodies three core components:
- Generating social and/or environmental impact, with the goal of achieving both
- Using socially responsible methods
- Pioneering a financially sustainable approach
Achieving this trifecta often takes collaboration among diverse, non-traditional stakeholders and a systems approach. In Baltimore, the urban wood economy is being driven by the coordinated efforts of city, state, and federal government agencies, social enterprise organizations, and the private sector, specifically:
- Humanim, a workforce development social enterprise committed to developing job opportunities for people with barriers to employment. Specifically, Humanim’s Details Deconstruction and Brick + Board are two flagship social enterprises that have created employment for hundreds of people.
- The City of Baltimore’s Departments of Housing & Community Development and Recreation & Parks, and Office of Sustainability, each of which has demonstrated incredible innovation and leadership in transforming waste to wealth
- The State of Maryland’s Department of Housing & Community Development, which embraced holistic metrics for success to support and enable innovation
Exploring Sustainable Supply Chains: Room & Board, Taylor, Fender
Fortifying the urban wood economy in Baltimore and replicating success in other cities becomes easier with a national partner who is willing to buy wood from multiple locations and has a national level impact. One of the ways that we have begun scaling is through a partnership with Room & Board, a modern furniture and home decor retailer committed to sustainable practices and American craftsmanship. Over 90% of Room & Board’s products are made in America using quality U.S. and imported materials. The company prides itself on its long-standing partnerships with family-owned businesses to create products with the best craftsmanship and lowest environmental impact. Interested to work with any organizations that have an interest in re-using urban wood, the Forest Service began discussing a potential partnership with Room & Board in early 2017.
The company was intrigued by the story of the deconstructed wood and the social and environmental good it was enabling. Impressed with the reliable supply chain we had already collectively built, Room & Board sought to repurpose the wood. By 2018, Room & Board had sourced deconstructed wood from Brick + Board and launched almost a dozen products made of reclaimed yellow pine under the branding “Urban Wood Project: Baltimore.” The inclusion of “:Baltimore” in the brand implicitly allows for the development of urban wood products from other cities – and expansion cities and products are currently in development. Beyond this, urban wood is not proprietary to Room & Board. Indeed, our constellation of partners is working with Taylor and Fender Guitars and seeks to work with others who share our vision of building a sustainable supply of and public demand for, and awareness of urban wood.
Exploring Sustainable Financing: Social Impact Investing
Access to capital is another critical component to scaling and replicating the urban wood economy. Our work has explored social impact investing through a partnership with Quantified Ventures. A popular form of social impact investing is called pay-for-success financing. Pay-for-success is a method of funding a project, usually run by a government or nonprofit entity that will perform some social service. A key feature is that the project is evaluated holistically—by revenues generated as well as costs avoided. We have generated publically-available reports on the use of sustainable financing, in some cases Pay-for-Success financing, to scale up both deconstruct and fresh-cut urban wood operations. Central to all efforts is creating as many living wage jobs as possible for those with barriers to employment.
From Pilot Effort to National Success
Expanding scale and scope is a top priority. Baltimore has been the pilot city, but we seek to share, replicate, and refine the urban wood economy model in any other city with interest. To that end, we host an annual Urban Wood Academy, a multi-day experiential workshop designed to share best practices and lessons learned around building a networked, regional wood economy. The Academy brings together diverse practitioners from various sectors, geographies, and backgrounds to engage in mutual learning with the Forest Service, Humanim, and City of Baltimore, and each other. The Academy is designed to facilitate two-way dialogue, uncovering powerful lessons in how a networked, regional wood economy may be implemented in different communities, and how these networks may tier toward a national urban wood economy.
Recognizing waste, as a verb, in all its many forms – resources, pollution, human potential — is central to any effort to repurpose urban wood. It’s about so much more than wood. It’s about systems level thinking and engaging systems-level actors across sectors. And like so many efforts to increase sustainability and resilience, successful efforts depend on working across boundaries – levels of government, sectors of the economy, seemingly disparate challenges – to produce innovative solutions. This kind of transformative approach leads to replicable, high-performance outcomes that improve lives, communities, and ecosystems.
For those interested in learning more, please visit the Baltimore Wood Project website and our sustainability teaching case, entitled “Reclaiming Wood, Lives, and Communities: How do we turn a waste stream into an asset that revitalizes cities?”
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