Kamerastore was built on the idea of a circular economy. 12 years ago, our founders sat down and decided they would base the whole business on second hand cameras and help preserve film cameras for the next generation. We’ve learned plenty of lessons and done our best to be at the forefront of sustainability conversations here in Finland.
That being said, being sustainable in Finland hasn’t always been easy. There are much less taxed and lower income countries on earth to achieve profitability on something as labour intensive as our work. We’d like to take this opportunity to share some core experiences, learnings and thoughts from our time operating a sustainable business.
Humans are the Key to Circular Economy
Most of the world operates using linear production – where a product goes from raw material to a factory, to a store, and to a consumer before becoming waste – most of the work can be done by machines or humans treated as machines. Humans have basically perfected this style of production, making some people unnatural amounts of money along the way. The problem is that the side effects of production, especially on a massive scale, are felt more by the planet than the consumers and producers.
That’s not how we operate here. Repairing a camera is not a task for a robot. It needs creativity, skill, and ingenuity. Almost all profits from Kamerastore go to educating new staff, rescuing spare parts, cameras, and equipment, or building a global network of camera knowledge. We choose to invest in our people and our community rather than maximizing profits.
And it’s a good thing, too, because running a business like this requires a lot of people. We could sell 50,000 new cameras with a staff one third the size of our current one, but old film cameras have to be treated differently. They’re all unique, special in their own way and with stories to tell. We receive cameras from all over the world; cameras that have seen decades of history that most of us have only read about in books or seen on the news. We take these pieces of the past and check, clean, repair, and recheck them in a way that’s just not happening anywhere else. Just as it takes a village to raise a child, it takes us 35 full-time employees to sell a camera that we’re proud of.
The point is that the people are the center of any sustainable business. Without good people, it just doesn’t work. If you aim to do a circular business, find good people (and maybe a good IT system too).
This passion we have for film photography is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of human sustainability. Many things we take for granted here in Finland, such as a 37.5 hour work week, 5 weeks of annual paid holiday, maternity/paternity leave, and so on. These are perks of living in a nation that puts wellbeing first, but they undoubtedly contribute to what we think is the core of human sustainability. We believe that workers should feel content going to work and have energy left afterwards to enjoy and live life.
We are proud to have good people in our team and are happy that their work bears sustainable fruit all around the world. Every hour of work at the office is part of the solution to the global sustainability crisis, not a part of the problem.
More than CO2 and H2O, it’s About Ecological Design
With issues like rising sea levels, dissolving polar ice caps, greenhouse gas emissions, and increased destructive weather events, it’s easy to see why so much of the sustainability conversation centers on ecological factors. It’s extremely important to discuss how we can produce a t-shirt with less water or make electronics with less precious metal, but another side of the argument sometimes gets ignored – longevity. No matter how much lithium we put into a cell phone battery, it’ll likely be electronic waste in 4 or 5 years.
Ecological sustainability can also be achieved by designing, manufacturing, and using products that last decades whenever possible. It’s the “Reuse” of the classic “Reduce, reuse, recycle” slogan. This doesn’t apply to all products, but used cameras are an excellent example. We don’t need new film cameras (even if the community wants them) because there are millions sitting in attics, basements, and stores around the world just waiting to be rescued. It is one of the core reasons we love film cameras so much - the coolest of them are from an era before plastic was even invented and they still can be used daily (with the right servicing every 10 - 20 years). Leica’s design philosophy in the 1950s was to make a camera that would outlast its user, which is why an M3 still works as well as any new digital camera.
As consumers we need to start demanding better product design and the end of planned obsolescence. We also have to be willing to pay for it. Totally new business models can be designed around longer-lasting products that can still create economic value decades after production. Who would’ve thought a 75 year old film camera could teach us so much?
Other Aspects of Sustainability
When talking about sustainability, it’s reductive to only consider ecological factors. Yes, we as humans must curb our destruction of the planet in the coming years, but if we sacrifice everything that makes us human to do it, what’s the point? That’s why the conversation has widened in recent years to include ethical, social, human, and even economic factors.
Out of Kamerastore’s products, less than 3% have the “Made in China” label. Things can, of course, be made ethically in China, but even in a globalized world it’s difficult to track supply chains when a product is produced halfway around the world. Again, the negative effects of exploitative production aren't felt by the average consumer. It’s easier for many western companies to accept cheap goods from overseas without questioning how the goods became so cheap.
Our products mostly come from Marja-Liisa from Seinäjoki, Finland or Carl Gustav from Uppsala, Sweden who found some cameras in their attic, packed them into a banana box, and posted them into our store. Instead of paying a wholesaler on the other side of the world, we pay local people who then contribute to our local economy. Someone then buys the camera from us, uses it for a while, and maybe even sells it back to us after a few years. There are far fewer uncomfortable supply chain questions to ask with a business like ours.
In a vacuum, economic sustainability means making more money than you spend. A business has to do that to keep the lights on, after all. This part of sustainability is where we struggle the most. Between taxes, pensions, shipping fees, wages, and the price of buying every camera we eventually sell, there’s not often much left to call “profit”. We’re a company of passionate dreamers, and our office is full of lofty ideals and childlike wonder. There are honestly only a few of us who have the business sense to notice when our passion becomes unprofitable. Despite this, we’ve grown quite rapidly over the past 10 years. Something must be working.
It’s Easy to Build on a Sustainable Foundation
Since 2010 we haven't seen the circular economy as a nice little addition to our business but the core principle to build it on. Over 90% of our revenue comes from secondhand materials and the services that keep old cameras going (repairs, film, batteries, accessories etc.).
We understand that our product niche is.. well, niche. Transforming existing companies to rely on a different product process model is harder than building a company to be circular from scratch. It’s possible, though, to change 10-20% of almost any company’s production to be circular rather than linear. Even this amount of improvement could fundamentally change the way we do business. Thankfully there are many smart people around the world thinking about this and deciding how to transition to a circular economy most effectively.
Right now, though, we’re not ready. Humans get stuck in their ways, and it’s hard to convince massive (& hugely profitable) companies that they need to change things. Smaller companies often have to focus on profit to stay afloat, leaving sustainability as a side mission. It’s tough out there, especially in recent years. We are still on our way, and have many aspects of sustainability to still work on. I however want to encourage you - if we can make a circular economy work in one of the most remote, expensive, and taxed economies of the world, it can be done anywhere. And it needs to be done everywhere.
So believe in yourself, surround yourself with good people who share your ideals, and we can work towards changing what it means to be a business.