The Ljubljana-based organisation is simultaneously doing workshops on sustainability whilst also creating eco-friendly products.
by Portia Ladrido
It has been 25 years since Slovenia dropped the word socialist from its official name. On 25 June 1991, a referendum made way for the country to detach itself from post-World War II Yugoslavia, which ushered a wave of capitalist consumerism that has somehow polarised the nation.
On one hand, there were those who rapidly and increasingly embraced the market economy by infinitely consuming products; but on the other hand, there were those who were concerned with how the new economy also escalated the Slovenians’ volume of consumption.
Smetumet, an NGO and social enterprise based in the capital of Slovenia, Ljubljana, belongs to the latter. Their main advocacy is to start the conversation on the issue of waste; to lead discourses about where products come from, where they end up, and what people can do to be better consumers. The entire initiative on conscious consumption was sparked mainly by the political and economic transition the group have seen and experienced.
“We were a country going through a transition – from socialist times where things were scarce and we really had to take care about what we use to all of a sudden having capitalism and seeing people lose their heads and minds in shopping, shopping, and shopping. We saw that there was the need to address the issue of waste,” said Maja Rijavec, one of the founding members of Smetumet.
The NGO started in 2007 as an informal get-together of a group of friends where they would talk about a joint passion – the issue of waste. Maja said that the conversation was not so much about waste but talking about where things come from and where they go.
“We would really go deep into those questions. What kind of impact does this material have? Is it better to use this than this? Would it be better if we combine it with another material? Is this ecologically okay or not okay? Where does this come from?” she said.
They then started engaging people within their community by discussing the topic on a more emotional level rather than just by giving them statistics. It expanded into workshops for different groups where their guiding question throughout the sessions was how the ugly, undesirable, and negative view on waste can be transformed into more beautiful, meaningful products.
On top of just talking about how things should be, they wanted to show how things can be done in a completely positive manner. They’d like to say that it’s a complete win, win, win – not just for the people but also for the society and the environment as well.
It was also relatively easy for the group to invite and convince people to join their initial discussions as they themselves were practitioners of recycling and upcycling even before the founding of Smetumet. Alenka Kreč Bricelj, Maja’s founding partner, highlighted that on a personal level, the whole Smetumet group came from families that were into D-I-Ys, so building the organisation was a natural progression for them.
“For example, in times of Yugoslavia, it was not possible to get Coca-Cola or Fanta drinks in the tin cans, so we went to Italy and when my parents brought me one can of Coca Cola, I was so happy to have it and I would preserve it for special occasions.”
“And then when I got a few of them, my father made a lamp out of the cans. He put a light bulb into it and because he’s an electrician, I had a lamp made out of Coca-Cola cans. I was a little bit embarrassed that I had a can chandelier in my room but now it’s quite funny because I hope I don’t embarrass my children as much as he did but sometimes I do for sure,” Alenka candidly recalled.
While most organisations are either an NGO or a social enterprise, Maja and Alenka felt that it strikes a good balance to have both. For their NGO, they continue to do workshops where they raise awareness on the topic of waste and sustainability. They would go to schools or companies and talk about how they can use the waste material, how best to combine them, and what alternatives they could have to decrease their consumption.
A project that Alenka led that she holds close to her heart was their special needs workshop where they used old felt toys and turned it into special needs toys. They also employed women with special needs to work on the project and it was truly fulfilling for Alenka especially that it was an opportunity for people with disabilities to have work.
“When we employed women with special needs – even though our project was finished –those women were unemployed for a long period of time, but through the project, they were able to get jobs that they sustained. This is why we’re doing it – to help real people,” Alenka said.
For their social enterprise, the products range from drawstring bags made of used curtains that can replace plastic bags for grocery shopping to decorative pendants made of egg cartons that have seeds of edible plants, so when you’re done using it as a decoration, you can put it in soil, water it, and eat the produce.
What they create most and what are ordered frequently are their work and schoolbags made of waste lanyards, tarpaulins, seat belts, and suspenders; materials of which they get from individuals, scrapyards, and big businesses.
“More and more of our time is consumed by business meetings where we go to our clients and present what we can do with them because a portion of our work is recycling waste from businesses. We go to a company, we see what their waste is, and we would talk about how we can transform their leftovers,” Maja explained.
Corporations that produce a lot of waste, but are also trying to be more conscious about what they put out, are Smetumet’s key clients as of late. But another important group that have consistently reached out to them are grannies; women over 80 who would bring them something from another era and share about the things they made themselves before.
“The whole communication with them, the passing of the knowledge of how they used to do things before, how they used to think about waste before and all these things for us is so important. It’s not only a group that donates stuff and gives us waste material but it’s also a group that is part of us,” added Maja.
As an organisation that promotes sustainability and fair pay, oftentimes, their products are more expensive than what people would normally want to shell money out for. Alenka said that sharing the rationale behind their prices can be quite challenging.
“It’s a challenge because it’s not a fair competition to, say, compete with a product that is made in China. Our products cost a lot more because the hour of work is much more expensive than, say, the one in China. It’s not fair for the people in China too to be working long hours for the amount that they get and it procreates injustice.”
Although maintaining a continuous cash flow is a struggle that the group is still working on, Maja and Alenka’s satisfaction with creating a movement that has impacted their community is a feat that they don’t take for granted.
“We created an organisation that is just not an organisation, but a world we want to live in. We’re strong because we have a whole community here – the organisations we work with, the other NGOs, our colleagues and this is worth the most. Even when it’s tough it’s worth going on because we have a huge support group of people who believe in the same cause,” Maja said.
Portia Ladrido is a multimedia journalist specialising in countercultures and social justice. She has written for Radio Times, Because London, Very Nearly Almost, The Metropolist, and other independent publications. She’s usually looking for new exhibitions to visit, new social media trends to try, new books to read, and new gummy bear flavours to munch on until she falls asleep.