Brazil is, rightly or wrongly, perceived as the “sexy country”. Beautiful people ready to party and… erm… have sex. The Brazilian government embraced this stereotype and took aim at more than just safe sex by combining social and environmental issues into a product that will hopefully make us all hug a tree. Sustainable condoms…
Almost all condoms are made from oil or oil by-products. Rubber used to be tapped from trees but oil has taken over as the cheaper alternative. It has devastated the tapper industry in Brazil where the tapping rubber has been a traditional way of life in the Amazon. It’s a shame as tapping of trees are very sustainable as it doesn’t kill the tree. This was where the Brazilian government took the initiative and combined a few core challenges into a major project.
First up has been the Brazilian government’s very succesful anti-HIV/Aids program. The Brazilian plan was attacked by conservative governments and religious groups (and a few drug companies) but the government stood strong and targeted safe sex as a key part of addressing HIV/Aids in Brazil – that and cheaper drugs. And it work. Really well. So well that the Brazilian government is now the single largest purchaser of condoms in the world.
So how do you combine something dealing with health challenges with a program that can also tackle environmental and social challenges? By looking at the rubber.
Tappers have lost their income and forests are cleared for farming – a social and environmental nightmare. The Brazilian government stepped in and backed a plan to bring their purchasing power to the rubber tapping industry.In 2008 the government announced a plan to make the production of condoms more environmentally friendly by sourcing the rubber from sustainable sources – the trees.
Three challenges dealt with in one go – health, economy and the environment. People get condoms to protect them. People get jobs tapping rubber. The environment benefits because no trees are cut down. Beautiful.
Of course none of this would have been possible if the Brazilian government didn’t put their purchasing power behind it. But they did and the industry is starting to flourish beyond environmentally safe condoms (no pun intended). Handbags and other goods are being manufactured and the environment is at the heart of the project.
The lesson in this is that we should always take a step back and see how many angles we can work from. The Brazilian government took an angle that leveraged one program to impact others and drive even more benefits. Too often companies (and NGOs) look at a challenge from one dimension – micro-credit, education, health etc instead of looking at how they can combine different elements to have a better impact. You need to source a product from a farm in Africa? No problem working with the farmer and help him/her become more efficient. But what about education? And the infrastructure? And health? Work with others in the way the Brazilian government did and become more efficient. This way your project have a much broader impact and 2 + 2 really equals 5. Combine efficiencies and look the problem from different angles. Surround yourself with partners and employees who are different. The beauty of NGOs is that they do look from other angles but most companies miss these opportunities because they are just too narrow in their own focus.
Be open and find a new angle. You never know, you might become the “sexy company” who manages to truly make your bottom line fit in the with the environmental and social bottom line.