The end of October marks the end of our collaboration with Edinburgh Mask Makers, and we will be collecting in the collection boxes in Leith, Newington and Granton. It’s prompted me to reflect on the project, and think about the amazing things achieved in the darkest of times.
March 2020 saw The Edinburgh Tool Library turn 5 years old, and in that time we have seen how important it has been in changing the lives of so many people. Watching self-confidence blossom in young people, seeing the transformation we make with a community build, or hearing about a member’s home transformation. We had changed lives, but we had never saved lives.
When the coronavirus pandemic hit, we started by shutting down our services early – we love sharing, but were very aware that Covid19 is not the sort of thing we wanted to be distributing throughout our community.
We delivered our workshop dust masks to the Gilmerton Care Home, who had no PPE. It felt wonderful to have helped, and we got a lovely thank you card in the post. But we wanted to do more, and didn’t know where to focus our efforts.
And then we found out about the Edinburgh Mask Makers (EMM)…
This group of community-minded people had self-organised through Facebook, and had a ready-made production line established where materials supplied (free) by the West End Tailors were sent out to sewers across the central belt, who would pledge a number of masks they would make by a certain date, and then return them either to a drop off box, or in the post. When ETL got involved it was initially because their drop off location had been broken into and all the masks stolen, so initially we offered to build some secure boxes for storage and collection. We found places to host the boxes, then set up a collection routine and used our Portobello workshop as a place to count and sort the masks, and where volunteer drivers could pick them up for redistribution. The EMM sent us a list twice a week of who was picking up what for which organisation, and we were in business!
What I really loved about the mask makers group is that it was a beautiful example of organic, grass roots community action. Here were a group of amazing people, who weren’t satisfied with just doing their bit by staying home, they wanted to help those people who had to go to work – because they were the very key workers that were on the front line. It was like watching the blossoming of a cottage industry, and because everyone was based at home, it meant volunteering was completely inclusive, and that people who might not be able to volunteer under normal circumstances got to enjoy the amazing buzz that it gives you.
Over the weeks and months, we met people from all across central Scotland who were doing amazing things to keep people safe. We had pickups from 86 different organisations, ranging from Turning Point to NHS Lothian, Empty Kitchens Full Hearts to the Red Cross. All in all 12,613 masks were made by the 1000+ members of the Edinburgh Mask Makers network, and distributed right across the country by a team of amazing volunteer drivers.
I want to take this opportunity to salute the amazing admins at EMM – Rosie, Magda, Dhouha and Martha, The Hunter Foundation for funding to help support the running of the project, the generous folks who lent or donated machines, our amazing ETL Tooligans who helped coordinate the distribution and of course the wonderful sewers of Edinburgh, who stepped up when they were needed, with fire in their bellies and sparks flying from their sewing machines.
Because of all of your hard work, time and sacrifice there are a lot of people who have not experienced first hand the horrors of Covid19.
These are strange times, even for the strange times we have all gotten used to living in. As I write, a significant proportion of the world is still under lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic, with an estimated 2.6 billion people living with some sort of restrictions to their daily lives. A situation unthinkable only a few months ago, there is still much uncertainty as to how we find our way out of this and where we will end up. Questions about immunity and vaccines abound, but also ones about our loss of rhythm and intimacy. How do we get back to that place where we can once again come together, to celebrate, to support, to live like the social beings we all are? What does seem certain is that our old ways of living will require some tweaking, perhaps even radical changes. Amid the tragedies, and anger, and economic destruction that the virus is still wreaking, some are hopeful that the crisis can ultimately be a catalyst for positive change, and a reimagining of our future world.
One such optimist is Chris Hellawell, founder and CEO of the Edinburgh Tool Library (ETL). Founded in 2015, the ETL, the first of its kind in the UK, operates like a library but with tools instead of books. Members pay a small fee each year to access an array of tools ranging from hammers to lawnmowers to pressure sprayers. They save both money and space, and can make use of workshops where friendly ETL volunteers stand by to offer help and advice on projects. But the ETL’s mission extends far beyond just tool-lending. It provides training and opportunities for young people facing barriers to employment, partners with other organisations on social projects, and even offers woodwork classes. And, just like a traditional library, its three locations across Edinburgh act as focal points for the community, a place where ideas and skills, and not just things, can be shared.
I’ve known Chris for over five years now, having met through a mutual friend, and ended up as a treasurer and trustee of the ETL for 3 years. Chris has that effect on people. I’ve never known him to be anything less than optimistic or inspiring. ‘A glass half full kind of guy’ he says, in a typically understated way. We meet, as is now the norm, over a video call. We laugh at the strangeness of it all. But social distancing presents challenges for social enterprises like the ETL. Because of the lock-down, it is unable to carry out tool-lending or workshops. But while the five full-time staff are now furloughed or on leave, the ETL and its volunteers, also known as Tooligans, are anything but idle.
‘We are not directly useful to battling a virus, but we have the facilities there and the resources and the network of volunteers that can be useful to people’, says Chris. And they are. The ETL van (electric of course), along with workshop manager Jonny, are helping deliver food packages and supplies to vulnerable residents in Wester Hailes, a socio-economically disadvantaged area of Edinburgh. Sewing machines, usually available to borrow as part of the 1000-plus tool inventory, have been distributed to some of the 800-strong Edinburgh Mask Makers group, who are making face-masks to help stop the spread of COVID-19. The ETL is also helping with logistics. It has built secure collection boxes for the masks, and is assisting with the collection and distribution to the places that need them. Realising there was PPE in their now shuttered workshops, masks were donated to a local care home too. These are just some examples of the kind of support ETL provides to the community and the Third Sector. And this is the real point of the ETL: an enabler, a connector and a doer, filling the gaps, helping others out and linking people as it does. An embodiment of the whole, the community, being greater than the sum of its parts.
The ETL is part of what is sometimes referred to as the ‘Sharing Economy’. This term, which describes an economic system where assets or services are shared between people, can be seen as a describing a number of different approaches along a spectrum. At one end sit companies like Airbnb and Uber, capitalist and profit-seeking, and at the other social enterprises such as the ETL, with community and positive social and environmental outcomes firmly at their core. Whilst there are some similarities in terms of efficient use of resources, Chris does not think comparisons between the 2 ends of the spectrum make sense. In fact, he believes that while the term does apply to the ETL, ‘money-making large companies that don’t pay their fair share of taxes’, such as those multi-billion dollar businesses, ‘don’t have much to do with sharing’.
The reaction of all businesses, regardless of economic model to this crisis will, thinks Chris, be a differentiator going forward. ‘People will remember you were a positive force in the community’, pointing out that businesses who have ‘stepped up will realise that people do care about this stuff, and they will do well’. He foresees a continuation, even an acceleration of the trend, seen from local businesses to the world’s capital markets of people demanding more from companies. It’s no longer enough to provide good products and services, there is now also a demand that companies are socially aware, that they treat their staff well and, in short, are good citizens.
Not far from the docks of Leith where the ETL is based, Edinburgh city centre is a hub for global financial asset management, where the trend towards ESG (Environmental, Social, Governance) or ‘responsible / sustainable investing’, backs up Chris’ thoughts. In recent weeks, there has also been a shift away from shareholder capitalism towards what is being referred to as ‘stakeholder capitalism’. As a result many Finance companies have suspended paying their usual dividends to shareholders in order to better look after small businesses and their workforce. Other things are stirring too. Talk on Universal Basic Income, long a fringe idea for revolutionising the economy, is firmly back on the table and is arguably being implemented right now in much of the Western world.
But Chris also thinks that as well as enterprises becoming more ‘social’, that social enterprises themselves will increasingly be seen as an economic model for the future. He concedes that they will likely take a hit in the short term (the average charity or non-profit is advised to have cash in the bank for just 3 months of expenses) but points out that more and more people are realising, especially in the eye of the pandemic storm, that organisations with community at their heart, are the ones you can trust and want around. ‘People are really starting to understand these are the things that I need in my life, these are the things that are non-essential. And community is essential’.
The recent surge in community spirit points towards the strength of this feeling. The Thursday communal ‘Clap for our Carers’ sees millions of people stand outside their homes, socially distant, but together, to applaud NHS workers. An estimated 1 million people volunteered to help the NHS in England during the crisis, and there are numerous stories of neighbours banding together to ensure everyone on their street has enough food, supplies and reading material. This trend towards a society that is more community-minded and focused on people and the environment, already underway, may be accelerated by the pandemic.
‘A man is rich in proportion to the number of things which he can afford to let alone’ said Henry David Thoreau in his book Walden. First published in 1854, it has offered meaning for every age since. Viewed right now, we can see that although COVID-19 has brought tragedy and disruption and untold misery, an unexpected bright spot may be glimpsed in its pausing of our world. It has hushed some of the incessant noise scrambling our thoughts, it has slowed the dizzying pace of modern life and, having allowed people the time and clear space to think, might just have liberated us from some of the things we thought we could not let alone. ‘People are able to spend some time identifying what they really want to do’, Chris says.
But we do not live in this brave new world right now, and mundane things like rent and wages and bills still need to be paid. Chris fears that many charities will struggle to survive. And I wonder whether Chris and the ETL are fearful given the headwinds they face – both financial and logistical – given their model of gathering people together and sharing things. They are still spending money, paying rent and some staff, and they are still sharing and donating resources and time – are they doing too much now and risking not being around in the sunshine of the spring following this sudden, sharp winter? ‘We could hunker down and just not do anything and get through it’ says Chris, ‘…but even if we don’t [get through it], there is no point in sitting on this money and not following through on our values and our ethos’.
His words bring back an echo of October 2015 from the back room of Boda Bar on Leith Walk. The ETL’s first AGM – truly another world. I was nervously thinking about my Treasurer speech, when Chris spoke about the impact of the then fledging ETL, the power of volunteering and the difference it can make to local communities. A friend who was there later confided how moved and inspired she was by it. The act of giving up your time and energy and not seeking money or credit, or any payback is one that has perhaps been overlooked as the world has hurtled towards seemingly unfettered free-market capitalism.
Lewis Hyde, in his extraordinary book, ‘The Gift’, examines the difference between things given as gifts, or shared, without an expectation of payment, and those given in exchange for money. ‘A circulation of gifts creates community out of individual expressions of goodwill’, he says and goes on to describe how things given as gifts ‘increase – in wealth or in liveliness- as they move from hand to hand’. Lawrence Lessig, in ‘Remix’, brings all of this into context. ‘Gifts in particular, and the sharing economy in general, are thus devices for building connections with people. They establish relationships, and draw upon those relationships. They are the glue of community….’
Chris and the ETL are giving and sharing and as a result strengthening and increasing the community in which they live. The gifts they give, through volunteering and sharing, are increasing in worth, resulting in a more resilient, anti-fragile, and richer community. They may even be doing this to the detriment of their own future, but Chris, ever the optimist, stands firm. ‘If you say yes to helping people or you do the right thing when you have the chance…. You don’t know where that’s gone. If you do it for the right reasons and do the right thing, it will be alright.’
Andrew Carnegie, the Scottish-American industrialist and philanthropist, once said ‘A library outranks any other one thing a community can do to benefit its people. It is a never failing spring in the desert.’ The world at the minute feels a bit like a desert, facing a drought of jobs, money and human connection, brought on by COVID-19. The ETL, and social enterprises like it, with their models of sharing and generosity over profits stand oasis-like before us. A never failing source of strength and community, they can be a vision for the future and an inspiration in dark times. It does however, require us to have a strange but beautiful kind of faith that everything will be okay. That as Walt Whitman said ‘the gift is to the giver, and comes back most to him – it cannot fail’. Here’s hoping.
Dave Clancy is a former Treasurer of ETL, and is now exploring the world as a writer of creative non-fiction.
It’s Volunteers’ Week; a time to celebrate and say thank you to all volunteers around the UK, and here in the Edinburgh Tool Library (ETL) we didn’t want to miss this chance to share with everyone how amazing our volunteers are. Or as we like to call them, our Tooligans.
To get an idea of how much Tooligan power helps ETL, you should know that more than 2400 people have signed up as members since we started and more than 850 are currently active, borrowing a tool every 5 minutes we’re open. With just 40 regular Tooligans, commiting a few hours a week, with others joining the action as and when they are needed, the volunteer team is at the core of ETL activities and running. We are grateful for them every day of the year (although it is nice to have a special occasion to say it louder than usual!!!). Volunteers run the borrowing sessions, support members at the open workshops, repair tools, update the database, help with community builds and so many other things to help Edinburgh to make the most of its Tool Library.
On the team you can find women and men of all ages and walks of life. From those in their teenage years to those in their not-so-teenage years, locals, or people hailing from overseas, expert woodworkers, DIY fans or newbies who previously thought routers were only things that gave you the internet. Some have been volunteering since we opened, showing their commitment to ETL and their shared values but also demonstrating that it is a valuable and enjoyable experience for them – they keep coming back! Many Tooligans are relatively new, but the number of volunteer submissions growing steadily is a sign that word of sharing is spreading and taking root in our community.
Over the last year the Tooligans have, amongst many other things:
Led the borrowing sessions at the depot and the police box in Leith
Supported members in over 100 open sessions at the Custom Lane workshop
Helped design and refit the Portobello workshop
Supported the running of Porty workshop and tool library twice a week
Taught and assisted in over 40 evening classes
Undertaken volunteer build weekends for the Piershill Residents Association and the Duddingston Conservation Society, building outdoor furniture, bird tables, potting sheds and vegetable shop!
But, why they do it? Many come to make new friends and to feel part of a community of likeminded people with shared values, both social and environmental. Some enjoy the opportunity to learn new skills from fellow volunteers or members. For some people volunteering is a window to connect with the world in a different way, allowing them to overcome their struggles with mental health through helping others. And there is always the act of sharing: sharing experiences, sharing knowledge, sharing spaces, sharing tools, sharing moments, sharing laughs and fun.
As for myself, I learned about ETL a year ago after deciding that I should give back to the community that has welcomed me. I visited Volunteer Edinburgh, where they helped me to find the right place to start my volunteering journey. On my first meeting with ETL and hearing about the philosophy and values of the organisation, I knew I was already one of them, even if my experience with drills and hammers was quite limited at the time. And so my Tooligan story began. I know it is not going to be a short one!
Whatever the reason, every contribution is invaluable and without it ETL would not be possible. If you are around one of our locations this Volunteer’s Week, don’t forget to show your appreciation to our Tooligans. You can simply say thanks or leave a few words in the Volunteer Thanks Books that you will see appearing in our workshops and depot. Volunteers are essential to keep improving your community, helping you with your DIY, and keeping your Tool Library with its doors wide open for everyone.
There’s a lot happened at the Edinburgh Tool Library over the past couple years and thanks to our growing team, I am finally able to take a moment and get my thoughts together.
First and foremost, I am incredibly proud of what ETL has become, and is continuing to be. Three years ago, my spare room was full of tools, and I’d drag a big bag to the police box on Leith Walk once a week.
Today, we have: a staff team of six, two workshops in Leith and Portobello, and three other tool library spaces for tool repair, cataloguing and distribution. We recently completed a week of fourteen workshop classes, we run a volunteer build programme, a Tools for Life mentorship scheme for young people, the ‘Young Tooligans’ schools programme, a Creative Edinburgh nominated mobile bike kitchen and have an amazing team of over 40 volunteers.
These resources mean:
There are 750 hours of free workshop access
1000 tools are available to borrow
2100 members, of which 700 are active use ETL
We lend out a tool every 5 minutes we are open
We have completed 8000 tool loans
We have saved our members over £400,000
Our members carbon footprint has been reduced by 50t in the last 18 months
We provided 30 courses training people in a variety of different woodworking and DIY skills
For me, the mission of the Edinburgh Tool Library isn’t focused just on an environmental or community message. We can’t be pigeon-holed into offering one solution when we believe our offering is holistic and multi-faceted. We work with members of the general public, but we also have partnerships with groups that target particular disadvantaged groups. We work with other charities to address challenges our communities face, but also need to reach our own targets. We are Edinburgh based, but we also help people as far as the Greek refugee camps, and even Tanzania.
In addition to our day-to-day work, we feel strongly in challenging the government and funding bodies to support organisations who tackle many challenges, avoiding a single track approach. We know that tools are universal. Our mission at the Tool Library appeals to diverse groups of people from different backgrounds. That is why we are unique and so, so special.
We want to see a Scotland where sharing is a core value. We want our children and communities to embody the ethos that sharing is caring.
As the circular economy ‘butterfly’ diagram from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation shows, sharing is the optimal way of reducing environmental impact (on the diagram, the smaller the loop, the smaller the environmental impact). According to recent research (link), we have 12 years to get our act together to minimise catastrophic climate change yet we focus so much of our efforts on the widest loop in the circular economy.
We were pleased to see that the Scottish Government received recognition at the 2017 Davos World Economic Forum for its adoption of circular economy principles, but we want Scotland to keep pushing forward. Why are we so keen to fund recycling projects, when the best thing is not to create that waste in the first place? The focus should be on the tighter loops, of maintenance, sharing and reuse, which are areas led by community organisations, not large recycling firms.
We want to be part of a Scotland that supports smaller organisations to follow best practice to have the largest impact possible, and in that is the key. At the Circular Economy Hotspot conference, Janez Poticnik, Co-Chair of the UN Resource Panel, said that at a global level, there “should be a particular focus on the social aspects of circular economy processes (employment, inclusiveness, local benefits) which are crucial for better acceptance of the circular economy.”
This is exactly what ETL does – we benefit the community we are in, and people see the benefits – they are tangible. This then gives us a platform to talk about the relationship with the circular economy, and sustainable living.
Edinburgh Tool Library is already making a difference. We are following the butterfly diagram from inside to out, and are researching ways in which we can refine our model so our tools can stay circulating for as long as possible, and we are continuing to expand our work to make a greater impact.
We have recently received a grant from NESTA and the Scottish government to bring sharing to other areas of Edinburgh, as part of a pilot study aiming to make sharing easier than shopping (pretty ambitious eh?!!!). This is a collaboration with MyTurn, the US-based folks that administer our database, and that of around 250 other tool libraries across the world, and i-Puk, a German platform developer who have been working with German city councils on monitoring and project management tools to track waste reduction strategies. It’s a truly international collaboration. If we can demonstrate that a distribution network for our tools can work, then we can increase the scope to share more things, in more places. The hope is a platform where resources and services that do not need to be bought, are visible to everyone, and that the impact of this sharing can be recorded and reported with ease.
We want to continue to be at the forefront of the Scotland-wide sharing network so that community resources can benefit more people in a meaningful way across the country. This will not only increase opportunities for people all over Scotland to better themselves and the places in which they live, but save these communities money, and reduce their carbon footprint.
Scotland should be a place of access, not excess.
Tool libraries are a key to this access – access to resources can mean learning a new skill, or building something for your community, or it might be finding the confidence to start a new job after being supported by a local organisation you become involved with. Through the Edinburgh Tool Library we have seen these successes happen in our community.
With our growing organisation and our collaborations with NESTA and the Scottish government, we hope to develop the infrastructure for a national network of sharing organisations, so that people can benefit not just in Edinburgh, but right across Scotland.