Ecological and social start-ups On a mission to save the world

Stylish Soulbottles from Berlin are competing with the ubiquitous plastic water bottle.
Photo (detail): © Soulbottles

More and more start-up founders are creating companies that combine earning money with working towards social and ecological goals. Social start-ups are also gaining ground in Germany.

In recent years, Germans have become increasingly aware of the impact our consumer behaviour has on the world. More and more people are changing their shopping habits because they do not want to be responsible for driving child labour in Bangladesh, encouraging large-scale livestock farming, and destroying primeval forests. While some just curse capitalism, globalisation and the ills they bring, social start-ups have chosen a different path. Social entrepreneurs are using the mechanisms of the free market to make social and ecological improvements. In other words, anyone who buys the products or services these companies offer is simultaneously promoting the common good or conserving the environment. There are so many social start-ups in Germany; consumers can now put their spending power to good use in almost any area of life. Below are five examples of how wonderfully diverse the social entrepreneurship scene in Germany truly is.

City Tree: Vertical greenery offers seating and Wi-Fi

The “City Tree” filters as much pollution from the air as 275 trees. The “City Tree” filters as much pollution from the air as 275 trees. | Photo: © City Tree These days they are not uncommon sight outside any of the larger central train stations in Germany, but they have also arrived in Norway, France, Macedonia and Hong Kong: At four-metres tall, the green walls planted with special moss cultures known as “City Trees” are reducing harmful particulates, nitrogen oxides and carbon dioxide in our urban centres. According to Green City Solutions, they filter as many pollutants out of the air as 275 trees while taking up 99 percent less space. To keep the moss flourishing, each smart wall includes a solar energy plant and a completely off-line and intelligent irrigation system. So City Trees are self-contained and can be installed pretty much anywhere. And with a few extras, they can also do much more than just clean the air: The plant display can show lettering and images – for example for advertising purposes –  and City Trees can be outfitted with seating, and function as a Wi-Fi hotspot or e-bike charging station.

Einhorn: Condoms with style

einhorn are the first fair, vegan condoms. einhorn are the first fair, vegan condoms. | Photo: © einhorn You might have noticed these colourful little packets in the birth control section of your local drugstore. They feature an elegant unicorn and contain what are likely the first fair, vegan condoms. Einhorn has set out to bring style and sustainability to sexy time. They have found a workaround for casein, a dairy by-product that serves as a binding agent. And Einhorn condoms are made under fair working conditions. Company founders Waldemar Zeiler and Philip Siefer teamed up with the University of Hohenheim, which advised them on how to ecologically cultivate natural rubber for latex production. Additional, the company is committed to investing half of its profits in social and sustainable projects. “Condoms are really the perfect lifestyle product,” the company website boasts. “They are more than just sexy; they are sex in its purest form. Yet most have all the sex appeal of dog food.” Einhorn’s 20 employees are setting out to change condom’s image problem, offering their innovative product in designer packing reminiscent of crisp bags to take all the embarrassment out of buying and using condoms.

MyMüsli: Mix up your own batch of organic muesli

At MyMüsli, muesli lovers can create their own individual muesli recipe. At MyMüsli, muesli lovers can create their own individual muesli recipe. | Photo: © MyMüsli Germans love their breakfast muesli, so it makes sense that the English name is derived from the German “müsli”. And it is surely no accident either that the first company that lets you create your own individual muesli recipe is also from Germany. Since 2007, the mymuesli.de website has given muesli lovers a wide variety of organic ingredients, most locally sourced directly from farmers, to choose from when mixing up a breakfast treat. The founders invented a muesli machine that can manage more than 566 billion possible combinations. You can also buy a few popular mixes in large supermarkets and cafes, and MyMüsli has opened stores in almost every German city. Three students from Passau – Hubertus Bessau, Philipp Kraiss and Max Wittrock – got the project off the ground while studying full time. MyMüsli won a number of prizes the very same year it was founded, 2007. The following two years saw the company expand into Switzerland, Austria and the Netherlands, and it now employs more than 800 people. In 2013, MyMüsli was recognised with the Deutscher Gründer Preis (German start-up prize). “The timing was pretty perfect,” founder Mark Wittrock recalls. “The market hadn’t seen any real innovation in a long time, and we were in the right place at the right time.”

Soulbottles: Taking tap water on the road

Stylish Soulbottles from Berlin are competing with the ubiquitous plastic water bottle. Stylish Soulbottles from Berlin are competing with the ubiquitous plastic water bottle. | Photo: © Soulbottles A glass water bottle may not sound particularly innovative, but it all depends on your perspective. Sold throughout Germany, stylish Soulbottles from Berlin are pushing back against the ubiquitous plastic water bottle. Crowdsourcing is one key to their popularity. The company holds design contests anyone can enter a design concept in, and users can vote for their favourites. Former students and the start-up’s co-founders Paul Kupfer and Georg Tarne wanted to create a truly sustainable water bottle. As the company has evolved, its founders have begun focusing on raising awareness of the effects our drinking habits have on the environment. Soulbottles encourage people to drink more tap water, which is better quality than bottled water in countries like Germany. “With your support, we want to celebrate the wonderful luxury of drinking tap water whenever we want, and breaking free of the big bottled water companies,” the website claims. They have been a bit taken aback by their own success: “We have been overwhelmed by the enthusiasm. We started the whole thing as a hobby at the end of 2011, firing the first bottles in the kilns at our university in Vienna. Then it just kind of took off,” Paul Kupfer says.

Nebenan.de: Neighbours helping neighbours 2.0

Neighbours can get in touch via the app nebenan.de Neighbours can get in touch via the app nebenan.de | Photo: © nebenan.de It might sound old-fashioned, but neighbours helping neighbours is an up and coming trend. Large German cities have become so anonymous that people often don’t know the person who lives right nextdoor. Yet life could be so much easier if we helped each other out on occasion. Now, instead of having to ring the doorbell and introduce ourselves, the nebenan.de app and smartphones are bringing us together. Users register on the app and are automatically included in a closed group of neighbours from their area. Only residents can join a local group, and then work together to plan a street party or find a child minder. Nebenan’s three founders, Till Behnke and Michael and Christian Vollmann, kicked off their project in hopes of strengthening a sense of community. “These days we no longer take the time to foster neighbourliness,” Michael Vollmann explains. “Yet after our family and friends, and workplace, the local community is the third most important social support network in our lives.” These days, he hears wonderful stories everyday on nebenan.de. “Some are really heart-warming, like neighbours who water the flowers on their loved one’s graves for each other so they don’t have to go to the cemetery every day.”