24 May 2022

Bas van Abel at the Girbau LAB Innovators Club


On May 18, the new season of the Innovators Club started. This first session of the Innovators Club represents the starting point of a new season of lectures around innovation that consolidates a new stage of Girbau Lab as a space for collaborative innovation, that aims to contribute to transforming the industry and generating value beyond the laundry in terms of sustainability and well-being.

The first guest of the Innovators Club was Bas van Abel, founder of the sustainable smartphone manufacturer Fairphone and co-founder of De Clique, a service that aims to transform the organic resources of urban environments into new products. Bas has over 20 years of experience in social innovation, both as an entrepreneur and a designer, and is passionate about changing models through product and system design.

Bas van Abel at the Girbau LAB Innovators Club

During his speech, Bas van Abel told us about his entrepreneurial journey at Fairphone to bring the dark matter out of our production systems to the surface to re-humanize it. Bas explained how he was overcoming the challenges that arose over time to meet his founding goal of reducing the social and environmental impact of his activity.

In this sense, Bas van Abel explained: “What I did have was a clear vision: to delve into the electronics supply chain and help people understand how the industry works. I wanted to change the way people think about the products they buy and use. And I wanted to make a direct contribution to creating fair electronics.”

Bas emphasizes: “We are aligned with our mission to establish a market for ethical products and motivate the industry to act more responsibly. That’s why we strive to design longer lasting products with a focus on modularity to enable easy repairs. Our goal is to make your mobile hardware last as long as possible, and to provide the support to keep your software up to date. The longer you have your mobile, the smaller your ecological footprint will be. Simple as that.”

Greenpeace Guide to Greener Electronics 2017

Source: Greenpeace Guide to Greener Electronics 2017

The best result of this effort is the recognition published by Greenpeace in its 2017 “Guide to Greener Electronics”, which gave Fairphone the best rating (B) of all major electronics manufacturers.

1. Social Innovation: tell us about your vision and approach.

Like innovation, social innovation is only a means to an end. The goal of innovation in business is simple. You want to stay relevant towards your customers and to society as a whole. There are many companies nowadays that have put social impact as the core driver of their business. In that sense the business itself becomes a means to an end. The goal is to create social value, tackling social issues, through a commercial model.

I have a creative background and I’ve always approached setting up and running a business as a design practice. As a designer I’m very used of having to work within constraints and the way we’ve set-up our current economic system is probably the biggest constraint we have to work with doing business. I believe that some of the biggest challenges we face in the world (inequality, global warming) can be solved through redesigning our economic system. Challenging the current system by designing products and the whole business around it in order to improve the way business is done is what I love most. If you do it the right way, you could even change legislation by setting the right example and showing that it is possible.

2. Why and how social innovation should be fostered among organizations? Can social innovation become a business model?

I believe social innovation works best if you challenge yourself to keep improving the core of your business, opposed to for example setting-up a foundation that takes care of “doing good”. The best results will happen when you make it part of your mission statement. This way it becomes clear for all stakeholders that creating social and environmental value is an integral part of your business. This is important to stay ahead of customers, employees and regulators demands, as stakeholders increasingly expect businesses to take more responsibility. Not every social innovation will stand as its own business model, but it will add to your brand loyalty and overall company resilience.

3. Any examples to share with us?

I love the example of Patagonia, which is one of the front runners when it comes to challenging itself to improve every element of its business including the buying behavior of their customers. Patagonia has been bold in saying that you shouldn’t buy new clothes when your old clothes are still perfectly fine.

4. What are the main mistakes startups/companies make when it comes to innovating?

The biggest mistake is that when innovators have a validated idea or a working prototype that they think most of the work is done. 99% of innovation is about dealing with legacy stuff. The stuff that is already there and keeps us doing our work like we have been used to do it. Innovators love change, but most people actually don’t. Well, let’s say… most people are skeptical towards change and there are good reasons for that. We shouldn’t forget that the products and services of the company are part of an outcome of the company’s existing corporate culture, the legislative frameworks it works within, the business models it creates, the wider cultural habits it senses and shapes, the trade relationships, logistics and supply networks that resource it, a particular design philosophy, and so on… This is the space in which innovation needs to happen not at the drawing table. That’s why start-ups have a much easier job innovating as they are still in the design process of their own corporate DNA.

5. What improvements in efficiency and sustainability do you see for the laundry industry in the next 5 years?

I believe the biggest change will be on ownership. Many OEM’s will move towards a service model, where customers don’t own the equipment, but pay a subscription for using it. The service model will facilitate longer use and support of existing hardware at the core of its business model, which is more sustainable. The biggest challenge will be financing it.