From Disaster to Regeneration: The Experience of Vaia
In October 2018, storm Vaia hit Northern Italy. Its wind damaged 42 million trees. The economic and socio-cultural damaged caused was extensive. Born from this disaster, the start-up Vaia Wood took things in its hands and started producing value from and for the damaged forest.
By Enrico Chiogna | YPA Italy
The nights between 25 and 29 October 2018 represented a turning point in the perception of climate change by citizens in the Triveneto area. Northern Italy was hit by storm Vaia, an extreme weather event which brought record rainfall and winds at the 12th degree of the Beaufort scale. It means Vaia wind was a hurricane. In these four days and four nights, the storm damaged 42 million trees, for a total of 8.5 million cubic metres of fallen wood. The total value of the damage amounts to almost 3 billion euros according, to which one must add the inestimable damage that local communities linked to the fallen forest.
The impact on the territory has been devastating and the visual impact impressive: entire forests, including those of fir and larch in the Fiemme and Fassa valleys (the historical and environmental heritage used by the famous violin maker Stradivari to make his violins) have been razed to the ground by the force of the weather.
The first reactio in front of such a frightening and unprecedented event was denial and avoidance. But when the reality became apparent together with the full extent of the damage, somebody decided it was already time to rebuild the injured territories. If you go and look for one of these “somebody” who felt the urge to protect and care for the environment, you end up in Via Puisle, Borgo Valsugana. Here, exactly one year after the storm, Federico Stefani, Paolo Milan and Giuseppe Daddamo founded Vaia Wood. This start-up focuses on regenerating the forests in the Dolomites by marketing design objects made of the wood from the trees fallen during the storm.
Giuseppe Daddamo is able to explain very well this entrepreneurial experience.
He says Vaia three fundamental points define Vaia Wood’s business plan. The first concerns what is most visible to the consumer, the product. From this point of view, Vaia’s imperative is to contribute to the recovery of the raw material which would otherwise go to waste to create a unique object. It is the Vaia Cube, a natural sound amplifier which spreads not only music but also the awareness about the local impacts of climate change while telling the story and the characteristics of the territory.
The second point is about the company’s value chain. The production is supported and made possibile by a series of local entities, very tied to the communities and territories. Among them are parastatal bodies such as Trentino ASUC, which helps with the recovery of the wood. The networks of local artisans manufactures the sold objects, which are then packed by marginalised people assisted by social cooperatives. In this supply chain, the knowledge of the area and the know-how needed to process wood and generate a unique design product are successfully combined.
The third and last point, probably the most important of Vaia Wood’s business plan has to do with the impact on the territory. The start-up has in fact committed to planting a tree for each product sold, to actively support the regeneration of the forest on the Dolomites. To make sure the trees are planted respecting the biodiversity and to correctly promote forest regeneration, Vaia relies on the technical support of Etifor, a spin-off of the University of Padua which offers consultancy solutions for the enhancement of the natural capital.
Because of its nature and mission, Vaia Woods represents the model of a “Net Positive” company, a regenerative company able to give back to the environment and local communities more than what it takes from them.
In this regard, Vaia is one of a growing number of companies which build their value on trust and the transparency of their production and partnership structure. These businesses choose their collaborations with partner which share their own vision of the world: mere profit considerations are no longer their (only) driving force.
This might also entail losing profit opportunities. Daddamo explains us that Vaia Wood turned down an offer from a large company producing single-use plastic items. In spite of the sleepless nights they had after this rejection, time proved the founders right, as Vaia was able to grow thanks to its respect for its founding values. They turned from an apparent limitation into a fundamental asset, as the start-up was awarded the Forbes Social Entrepreneurs Under 30 prize.
Vaia Wood is therefore a demonstration of how a company can be successful and at the same time create value for the society and the environment. And it has much to give. Its vision for the coming years is to export its model based on cooperation with local realities and the regeneration of the territory outside Trentino. Daddamo believes that the model can be adapted to different contexts and different raw materials, depending on the characteristics and specificities of the territory affected by environmental problems. For example, the Vaia founders are currently studying a way to apply it to the areas of Apulia affected by Xylella Fastidiosa, a bacterium that is destroying olive groves.
But the continuity of the Vaia project is also ensured by their presence in the education. The company works with journalists and universities to organise presentations and seminars, through which it also receives feedbacks from stakeholders. These are essential, as they help Vaia to fine-tune its model.
Storm Vaia left indelible marks in Northern Italy and the regeneration of the territory will take decades. Another Vaia, however, has decided to contribute to the speeding-up of this process, while creating a flexible and adaptable business model which benefit for near and far communities and ecosystems.
The ecological crisis that is affecting the Earth requires the everybody’s collaboration to mitigate the impacts of extreme climate events which are becoming increasingly frequent worldwide. This calls for innovative and holistic solutions and methodologies, which integrate the interrelationships among individuals, the enviroment and the economy.
In this context, the role of the company as a place for the development of innovation and new practices is fundamental and Vaia, as a drop in a sea of innovative companies, represents this idea at its best.