Marina Gorbis: crowdsourcing abundance

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(CC image: "Distributing surplus commodities, Johns, Ariz.," 1940, Library of Congress)

Former BB guestblogger Marina Gorbis, exec director of Institute for the Future, considers how small groups/organizations can achieve scale and do good by sharing resources. Essentially every person (and every company) has a surplus of something that other people want/need:
Not everyone has a large house to trade or a large sum of money to donate but look around you -- we have excess of stuff, talent, ideas, information--in our homes , in our communities, and in our organizations. We are over-producing and under-utilizing resources all over the place. Witness the recent example of clothing retailers like H&M deliberately mutilating and tossing unsold clothes in the trash. Many experts in retail concede that the practice is not uncommon--for some unfathomable "economic" reason it makes more sense to destroy clothes than to release them into a local community. The situation is even worse when it comes to food. We over-produce and waste a lot of it. According to the USDA, just over a quarter of America's food -- about 25.9 million tons -- gets thrown into the garbage can every year. University of Arizona estimates that the number is closer to 50 percent. The country's supermarkets, restaurants and convenience stores alone throw out 27 million tons between them every year (representing $30 billion of wasted food). This is why the U.N. World Food Program says the total food surplus of the U.S. alone could satisfy "every empty stomach" in Africa. How about empty stomachs in our own communities?

The list goes on an on. We have surplus of space--many commercial buildings, schools, corporate and government spaces are underutilized, while many small organizations and individuals are struggling to find spaces for their work. We also have excess of talent--musicians, artists, designers, educated unemployed people, young and old--needing audiences, venues to work in, or contribute ideas to.
Crowdsourcing Abundance or "Screw' em, Let's Do This Ourselves"


  1. It’s not a mistake or an accident that abundance is destroyed. Profit-oriented institutions depend on scarcity, so when it doesn’t come about naturally, they manufacture it.

    Most excess food, clothing and other valuable goods don’t just “spoil”. They’re actively destroyed by producers or retailers, because putting them to useful purpose by making them available to people would undercut the scarcity on which the producers and retailers depend to turn a profit.

    It’s a fundamental contradiction of late-stage capitalism. The market has succeeded in creating huge overabundance such that everyone could have as much as they need, but this abundance undermines the success of key players in the market. So they have to do additional work just to re-create an artificial scarcity in order to continue profiting from an outdated business model.

    Hey, that sounds a lot like an intellectual property rant, doesn’t it? Maybe it’s not just intellectual property that’s the problem…

  2. Not the point of the post, but Duh-Yam that old Kodachrome stock in that image (from the LoC’s WPA archives) is surpassingly beautiful. Check out the book Bound for Glory if you like this imagery (and its über-saturated colors).

  3. I am surprised about companies destroying clothes. I didn’t know that. Concerning food, in our community, grocery stores contributed day-old baked goods, bread and rolls to Interfaith, our agency that helps people with food, donated clothing, showers, hair cuts and firewood in the winter. Also, people in the community used but clean and usable donated household items and new toiletries for the clients. It is a win-win situation, I think.

  4. destruction of goods and disposal of waste is typically a case of scarcity of another kind: space and/or labor. Moving, storing, sorting and distrubing goods that could be better used by others costs time/money, and someone needs to pay for or volunteer that.

    Publishing has to be one of the worst offenders. Unsold/over produced mass paper backs are referred to as “strip covers” because if they don’t sell and the store doesn’t want them the overs are striped and the books destroyed/tossed. One would think donating the over produced/unsold books to libraries, schools, hospitals, or aid groups would be a better use. But it is less work for the people paying wages to just rip the covers off and toss them.

    How do you get the almost spoiled fruit from the grocery store to the hungry? Who pays for the labor involved? Someone needs to volunteer or pay for that labor, transport and storage.

    1. “How do you get the almost spoiled fruit from the grocery store to the hungry?”

      Moving companies that may not be fully booked during the hours that they are open for business?

    2. Moving, storing, sorting and distrubing goods that could be better used by others costs time/money, and someone needs to pay for or volunteer that.

      Sadly, this is usually not the case. I’m fairly experienced at sifting the waste flow of corporate America, and I’ve been a part of many attempts to divert the useful things in that waste towards useful ends like homeless shelters or free food programs. Sometimes this works, but more often than not, these arrangements result in hostility from retailers and distributors.

      I’m talking about arrangements as simple as “hey, when you throw all that stuff away, we’ll come by and pick it up to give to the needy, ok?” No moving, storing, sorting, or distribution required on the part of the company – as you suggested, all of that is provided by volunteers. Really, all that’s required is that they keep doing what they always do and leave us alone when we come to pick up their excess. They could even get a tax-writeoff for the “donation”.

      Instead, we get companies hiring security guards specifically to thwart the reclaiming of excess goods. I’m talking partly about dumpster divers, but also of attempts by employees to divert waste to food banks or charities before they end up in the dumpster. There’s an entire security structure that’s devoted to ensuring that excess goods are destroyed. I know people who work in retail who are required to load all the excess, returns, and “imperfect” goods into a trash compacter and then crush them with the manager watching, lest someone end up getting value from some bit of that excess.

      This kind of waste is not a problem of lack of coordination. In fact, it’s not a problem at all for the people who control and operate large businesses – it’s a deliberately constructed situation. Unfortunately, it will take a lot more than better systems of coordination to change this dynamic. It will take a shift in how we relate to our economy and what we expect it to do for us.

  5. Problem: pretty much all of the “abundancy resources” described here are corporate, not personal.

    Corporations can’t really have social responsibility, or ethics, except in very special cases — because they are run by committees who are instructed to have one aim only: to satisfy the shareholders.

    If you view a corporation as a person or an animal, with psychology, you tend to see the psychology of the sociopath, the predator.

    Good luck persuading them to be nice; they’re not built that way. Maybe we need to think of something as radical as changing what a corporation IS.

  6. “This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased. Deny it!” cried the Spirit, stretching out its hand towards the city. “Slander those who tell it ye! Admit it for your factious purposes, and make it worse. And abide the end!” — Ghost of Christmas Present, A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens.

  7. In seattle, we have the Food Not Bombs free market (as well as several free meal services). We step in between the grocery stores and the dumpster.
    Any excess food (produce, deli, bread, etc…) from the stores that donate to us is distributed for free. All produce is organic, and most other foods. Participants are welcome to take as much as they want- there is no income limits or qualifications to be met. The group is non-hierarchical, organized based on consensus decision making, and totally volunteer run.

    Food Not Bombs in seattle also serves dinner for free Wednesday, Saturday, and Sunday.

    Keep it coming…

  8. @gretch I wonder that the problem isn’t America or as America as ‘black box.’ The rest of the world has evolved over the last century with capitalism. Most of America has benefited. It’s hard for us to get outside the ‘black box.’ I can’t, so I don’t have any reliable data.
    Now, to me, this wouldn’t be that big a deal ‘cept for two reasons. We may have a moral obligation to answer for where our collective wealth has come from. Also, and I know this to be true, Capitalism has *no* inboard check against the over utilization of resources. It is simple machine. A money shark, as it were, and it doesn’t care if it eats itself to starvation. We may have unleashed a philosophical apocalypse on ourselves that will occur so gradually we don’t even know it.

    Nods at the photo quality too, nice pic… note the early model Ipad the guy’s using.. :)

  9. When I was 16 I worked for a while at McDonald’s. Most of the time I was rostered on the closing shift. When the store closed all the unsold food had to be counted by the manager (ideally every thing is accounted for down to the last bun, but this didn’t happen in practice) and thrown away. If you wanted to eat something after your shift, you had to keep some aside and buy it (at half price) after you had clocked out. It was “against the rules” to eat “wasted” food, though we all did it anyway when the manager wasn’t looking–security cameras be damned. The managers are able to eat whatever they like for free.

    It makes perfect sense within their warped high-employee-turnover business model; provide no incentive for the employees to prepare excess food, plus you can get some of their wages back. The most effective way to stand up for yourself is to quit.

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