By Camille Szramiak-Arneberg
What they say seems to be true: Bigger isn’t always better, and the trend of “tiny” that has been sweeping the country affirms that truth. Several years ago Coca-Cola debuted its tinier 7.5-ounce soda cans. T.G.I. Friday’s and Ruth Chris’s Steakhouse, among dozens of other eateries, now offer smaller portion sizes at their restaurants, and smaller cars such as the popular Honda Fit and Ford Fiesta have replaced the super-sized Hummer as the shrewd vehicle of choice. Achieving gains by downsizing is a common theme in sustainability, and much of the tiny movement has to do with the health and environmental consciousness of millennials and a desire to minimize carbon footprints and waist sizes.
Choosing smaller options such as a 7.5-ounce rather than a 12-ounce can of soda for long-term benefit is often a no-brainer. But what if the tiny movement applied to your personal living space? While the average American home size has actually grown over 140 percent from 1950 to 2012 the burgeoning Tiny House Movement is fighting this trend and taking the “less is more” axiom to the next level. In about 400 square feet (and sometimes as little as 100 square feet) tiny homes capitalize on smart and creative design to deliver a fully functioning home with a greatly minimized structural, environmental and financial footprint.
Tiny houses have been on the fringes for the past few decades, but some think that their moment has finally come as the average family size shrinks and more people seek debt-free, minimalist living while decreasing their environmental impacts. According to Kai Rostcheck from the organization I Love Tiny Houses, internet searches for tiny houses have grown 687 percent from March 2004 through December 2013. Even the TV networks are picking up on the trend., and a new show called "Tiny House Nation" that follows a “new family in each episode as the burst open the doors to the trend of extreme downsizing," is slated to air on FYI (A&E’s lifestyle network) this July.
New companies are popping up that are actually making tiny home building their business like Meka, Tumbleweed Tiny House Co. and ShelterKraft Werks, a company that takes shipping containers that no longer meet regulations to be used for transportation and transforms them into livable dwellings.
While some are attempting to make a business out of the tiny house movement, other companies are looking to integrate tiny houses into their already existing business by lending skills and resources to the movement. For companies with relevant core competencies and a commitment to sustainability, the tiny house movement is ripe with potential.
Earlier this year General Motors engaged with the Michigan Urban Farming Initiative -- a Detroit program that's connecting the dots between recycling, repurposing and sustainable urban agriculture -- to help them build a 320-square-foot shipping container urban homestead. The container home was built with GM employee donated labor and 85 percent recycled materials donated from several GM facilities, including battery cases to be used as bird houses and planter boxes.
This could be an exciting niche for some companies. As reducing carbon footprints continues to be of importance and companies strive to meet waste reduction or waste diversion goals, an appropriate channel to achieve them could be found in tiny houses. Material donations to tiny house projects, especially from companies that produce sustainable products, can be good ways for companies to avoid landfill waste, recycle and reuse scraps, connect with a niche market, and increase their brand equity among a special demographic. According to Andrew Odom, founder of Tiny r(E)volution and author of “Your Message Here," many people interested in building tiny homes actively and successfully seek out corporate sponsorships from companies whose values align with theirs, such as Eccotemp (producer of small tankless water heaters) and LP Building Products, to offset costs and obtain materials.
With tiny house sponsorships, companies aren’t limited to reaching just tiny home constructors and owners with their messages. A growing number of people who aren't living in tiny houses still identify with values embodied by the tiny house community and are involved in and attracted to this community that reflects a more minimalist and conscientious lifestyle. These tiny home enthusiasts (but not necessarily owners) can even meet people and date on tinyhousedating.com, a new and increasingly popular dating site for minimalists and environmentalists. Odom, who wrote the script on corporate sponsorships, says the benefits to companies who sponsor tiny houses come in various forms from personal word of mouth endorsements of the company to Facebook audience reach, brand mentions in workshops and how-to construction videos, ads on blogs, and tax-write offs.
And what if the right companies took their sponsorship of personal tiny homes a step further to address an important societal issue? Tiny home villages are becoming a popular and affordable solution to homelessness in states including Wisconsin, Oregon, New York and Texas. Right now crowd-funding campaigns and private donations have made these villages possible. Government housing officials, advocates for the homeless and local churches, however, are exploring the viability of tiny house villages on a larger scale to address homelessness. Companies could play an important role in the proliferation and success of this solution. Land, labor, materials and construction equipment are just some of the things needed to construct these villages -- comprised of houses that cost as little as $5,000 each to build but that are transforming lives.
With promises and potential to deliver big environmental and social change this “tiny” movement might be one for companies to keep an eye on as they look for effective ways to extend their corporate responsibility efforts.
Image Credit: Panza
Camille Szramiak-Arneberg, a graduate of the College of Communication at Boston University, is an independent corporate sustainability consultant with interest and experience in the food and beverage and healthcare industries. She has worked on projects for clients such as Keurig Green Mountain, the World Society for the Protection of Animals, Johnson & Johnson and Nestlé Waters. She is currently working with the Lwala Community Alliance, a nonprofit that addresses women’s empowerment, education and healthcare issues in Kenya.