When Dave Watson first came up with the idea for the fold-flat shelter we were already involved in a number of green energy and other ethical businesses.
We were determined to ensure that Extremis would adhere to good principles of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR): we couldn’t see why it shouldn’t be possible to make money and be good corporate citizens at the same time. We decided to build the business on the three pillars of CSR: people, planet, profit.
With around 50 million people homeless from natural disaster or war at any moment in time – a mixture of refugees and Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) – we felt we could do something to make their lives better.
Having watched the Haiti earthquake disaster unfold in 2010, and seen how long it took to get people back into secure and safe shelter, we knew that our shelter idea could make a real difference.
There are conflicting requirements for shelter depending on the priorities of the aid agency and the environment in which the shelters need to be used.
If you need it to be light, it’s hard to beat aluminium and plastic. If you want it to last and to be maintainable then wood is better. Given that there are a number of lightweight solutions already, and that we wanted a shelter that could last for years, we chose wood.
More than that, we decided that it needed to be wood that was both from a sustainable source and appropriate to the local environment in which it was used.
That would maximise its impact on improving people’s lives while minimising the impact on the planet.
At first sight, this may seem the hardest to justify when talking about disaster relief. However, if you want to sustain a business for the long term and maximise the impact you can make, you need to deliver a profit to pay for people, R&D, finance and so on.
More than that, and perhaps initially surprisingly, NGOs and charities like to work with commercial companies. They can be sure that those companies will be around for the long term, aren’t reliant on government money or charitable donation, will continue to invest in building the business and to develop the product, and most importantly, will sign normal commercial contracts of supply with all the reassurances and insurances that come with it.
Five years after the initial idea we are now on the cusp of making first commercial sales and seeing a return on our efforts. In that time we have seen nothing to suggest that we cannot continue as a good corporate citizen and delver real benefit to refugees and IDPs, while delivering profits for the business.
People, planet, profit: real sustainability in the best possible sense.