How the World's Largest Crowdfunder for Creativity is Kickstarting Sustainability
Where else can you bring creative projects, like a handheld printer that can imprint on any surface or soap that smells like bacon, to life? I’m a big fan of Kickstarter. So when I heard the company was inspiring its creators to make environmentally conscious decisions, I immediately wanted to learn more.
As the world’s largest crowdfunding platform, Kickstarter has built a global community that aims to bring creative ideas to life. Since its launch in 2009, more than 155,000 creative projects have been successfully funded, and over $4.1 billion dollars pledged.
I recently spoke with Heather Corcoran, outreach lead at Kickstarter, to find out more about the company’s sustainability philosophy, its recent environmental features, and her favorite Kickstarter product to date.
Here’s an edited transcript of our conversation.
How does sustainability fit into Kickstarter’s mission?
When Kickstarter reincorporated as a public-benefit corporation (PBC) in 2016, the impetus was to move away from asking companies to optimize profit over everything. We want our creators to think about what they're making and how they can strike a balance between profit and other interests, including reducing their environmental footprint. These ideas support the mission of bringing creative projects to life because they show Kickstarter as a company that cares about who we are in the world, and it earns us trust with creators.
Sustainability is also top of mind across the entire organization. Every single decision we make is on the backdrop of that PBC charter, which includes the explicit commitment to limit our impact on the environment.
We've also taken a number of steps over the years to limit the environmental footprint of our staff and our headquarters, but we know that the biggest opportunity to limit our environmental impact will come from embedding sustainability into our creators’ products. I also think there's a growing interest from project supporters to have a deeper engagement with products and learn about their sustainability profile.
What sustainability issues are top of mind for creators?
Kickstarter now has entirely new categories of innovation in the design and tech space, which is really exciting. But it also means we have a challenge and an opportunity to make an impact when it comes to issues like e-waste, a huge concern and one of the fastest growing areas of waste. While the market for electronics has grown exponentially, the lifespan of those products has grown shorter.
The material extraction that goes into making anything with a circuit board is also resource intensive, particularly around energy consumption. Emerging technologies like blockchain and AI are energy-intensive technologies – but it’s an area that I'm personally the most passionate about, especially because Kickstarter has become well-known as a platform where new technologies flourish.
One of my favorite projects that addresses the e-waste issue head on is Transparent Speaker. It's designed from the outset to be repairable, so the parts are easily replaceable. They use common screws and common parts. For repairs that people can't make at home, they'll take back the product. And the thing that I love the most about Transparent Speaker is it's just beautiful. It's transparent, so you can see inside of it. It's an educational tool that gets people away from thinking about the “black box” of electronics.
You recently introduced a new resource to help creators think about sustainability from the get go. How do you see it impacting future product development on the platform?
There are actually two new features on Kickstarter. The first is a section on project pages that allow creators to detail environmental commitments they make when they bring their projects to life. When creators are building their projects, they can commit to reducing their environmental impact in five key areas: long-lasting design, reusability and recyclability, sustainable materials, environmentally friendly factories, and sustainable distribution. Their commitments will appear on their project page for potential backers to see.
The second feature is an information hub called the Environmental Resource Center where creators can learn about sustainability and best practices.
These two features promote transparency and curiosity. Backers want to know details about how products are being made and manufactured, and we want creators to become curious about the tangible steps that they can take to reduce their environmental impact. Small tips can go a long way, like using screws instead of glue. Or one that I think is fascinating is that black plastic is harder for recycling centers’ optical sensors to see, meaning it goes into the landfill more often than other colors.
An EDF fellow worked with you last summer to help bring the environmental resources to life. Why did you decide to seek outside help?
We had the idea for the Resource Center, and we’d seen the work that EDF has done in working with companies to reduce their environmental impact so we reached out to EDF to ask whether there were any existing resources or guides to help us. The EDF Climate Corps program – a first-of-its-kind fellowship program that brings together an arsenal of top talent, resources and expertise in a variety of subject matters and industries to help organizations meet their climate and energy goals – was a really good fit for us.
We have a number of very passionate environmental advocates here, including myself and the rest of our environmental working group, but we didn't have the sustainability expertise on staff to tackle this with confidence. And I use that word deliberately. It was about confidence. So, bringing in Alexandra Criscuolo was really about alleviating that fear and giving us confidence that we'd have both the support and the watchful eye over the process.
Do you have a favorite Kickstarter project that you’ve backed?
There is one project that I love which is called Splatware. It's a set of tableware by this ceramics studio called Granby Workshop based in Liverpool. But what's really amazing about the project is the story behind it. The residents set up the ceramics studio as a social enterprise to bring money and visibility back to the Granby Four Streets neighborhood.
The Kickstarter project allowed them to start making things in the thousands rather than in the tens or hundreds. They bought this machine—it's called a RAM Press—and it helped them produce this incredible, absolutely beautiful range of tableware. So now when I eat off their plates or serve food to friends on them, it's an in-depth connection to how the plates were made, rooted in the history of this beloved neighborhood.