In five years France's ADN agency has made its mark as a force for social innovation
Asking-giving-receiving-returning: this gift/counter-gift mechanism, as opposed to the ignore-take-refuse-keep cycle, has been revealed as the key to business efficiency by sociologist Norbert Alter. And in their recent book "La révolution du don" Alain Caillé and Jean-Edouard Grésy follow up this analysis of the gift as the "hidden driving force" behind the sound functioning of all forms of human organization.
When they founded ADN (L'Agence du Don en Nature) five years ago, Jacques-Etienne de T’Serclaes and Stéphanie Goujon extended gift theory to the market by inventing a specific business model. Since then their venture has gone from success to success: initially running at 1–3 million euros, the annual market value of the gifts collected is now 18 million euros.
So how does the system work? ADN goes to firms and collects unsold products scheduled for destruction for all sorts of reasons: discontinued lines, damaged packaging, etc. "Every year," reports France's Agency for the Environment and Energy Management (ADEME), "manufacturers and retailers destroy 600 million euros' worth of new non-food products."
The first donating companies were big, like Procter & Gamble and L'Oréal; then came smaller concerns, like household appliance maker Seb. The latest arrivals, in 2014, are Leroy-Merlin (furniture, heating equipment) and Célio (clothes). ADN now has around 100 different partner businesses.
This is no cloud cuckoo land, though: donors get a kickback in the form of a tax credit, which, together with the recycling of commodities that would otherwise be destroyed, means double optimization on the loss front: they control where their stuff goes, which stops unsold product from finding its way onto parallel markets; and the "gift" that shows up on their "social and environmental responsibility" balance sheet gives a nice boost to their public image.
Thanks to these loyal suppliers—and there are more and more of them—ADN continues the giving cycle: every year it sees to it that home maintenance, hygiene and wellness products, as well as school items, handyman equipment, clothing, etc. (all strictly non-food) go out to 600.000 people.
"In France we have 8,7 million people living below the poverty line," stresses ADN executive director Stéphanie Goujon. It goes without saying that food is not the only issue. Demand comes from students and impoverished families—the whole range of solidarity store customers. They pay for their products, but much less: between 10 percennt and 20 percent of the market price. "On average," say representatives of ANDES, the national network of solidarity stores, "our prices vary between 10 percent and 30 percent of the market level, but ADN suggests a ceiling price." ADN would rather see its products supplied free, but a lot of the non-profit community associations it works through see payment as the difference between solidarity and charity. "A question of dignity," they insist.
The associations buy products from ADN for 5 percent of the average shopping mall price; this covers the wages of ADN's seven staff and its logistical costs. The ADN warehouse is in the Loiret département, south of Paris, "so as to facilitate service for the whole of France." Distribution works via a network of 550 associations dedicated to the fight against social exclusion: the best known are the Salvation Army and Secours Populaire, but there are also many tiny local bodies like La Cravate Solidaire in Paris and Deux Mains Ensemble in Douai, to the north.
To broaden its reach all ADN has to do is inspire new followers. As Jacques Defourny and Marthe Nyssens point out, "When pioneer ventures come up with original responses to social problems, public sector policy often follows up as a major channel for innovation." Last June ADN was chosen to represent social innovation as part of the Presidential initiative "La France s'engage" (France Commits). This might just be the beginning. (Anne Rodier, Le Monde, France)
English translation: John Tittensor