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Great, green inventions: Introducing an ethical Dragons' Den

Business really can be people- and planet-friendly. Sarah Morrison samples some bright new ideas
  • @S_R_Morrison

The future is bright, green, and apparently shaped like a football. Soccket, an energy-generating soccer ball for the developing world, is just one of a new range of inventions promising to defy a commonly held belief: that business and ethics don't mix.

When the Virgin tycoon, Sir Richard Branson, launched a competition last year to "screw business as usual", he was looking for ideas from around the world dedicated to being a "force for good".

Receiving almost 500 entries, he has discovered that the new wave of green gadgets is anything but boring. From underwear made from waste to a property company that is warming a nearby building with commuters' heat, Branson said he was "surprised" by the "sheer number and quality" of ideas he received. A pitch for a karma-exchange website was found in the same pile of proposals as clothing produced in factories powered by wind and solar energy.

"There is now real momentum for change in the way business is done," Sir Richard said. "Profit alone must not be the only driving force."

Before Virgin Unite unveil the winner on 14 May, The Independent on Sunday took its own look at the most innovative and imaginative ideas that might help to change the world – or give us something to kick about while we wait.

Crowdsource your money

Peoplefund.it enables those with a business idea to ask the public for funding. The business sets a target for the money it wants to raise and explains how it will use the cash. People can then pledge small amounts in return for a "reward" if the target is reached.

Pants made from waste

The campaigning lingerie brand Who Made Your Pants? claims to bring together two things: "amazing pants and amazing women". The company buys end-of-season fabrics from big underwear companies and creates new pairs of pants. The women-run factory in Southampton trains employees in sewing, English, finance and leadership. About 80 per cent of the women are refugees from Afghanistan, Somalia and Sudan, with the rest part-timers born in the UK.

Up, up and away

The German KISS airship is an idea to "screw the transportation business-as-usual" by updating the airships of the 1920s and 1930s with state-of-the-art avionics, engines, GPS and other technology. Claiming that transport airships need 20 times less fuel than trucks, KISS believes its idea could give "humanity a capability it does not currently have: big hauling capacity into remote regions".

The online charity swear jar

Foul-mouthed Twitter users can now atone for their bad language with the Charity Swear Box, a donation-based site that detects all of the recently tweeted swear words of signed-in Twitter users and suggests a profanity-related donation paid through PayPal. The site tracks how often you swear in tweets, which swear words you use most, and then at the end of the week, asks you to pay up.

Clothes powered by the sun and wind

Rapanui clothing is a rags to eco-riches tale. Brothers Rob and Martin Drake-Knight, from the Isle of Wight, started the ethical surf brand with only £200 of savings in 2008. The sustainable organic cotton clothes are made in factories powered by wind and solar energy and customers can use a trace-mapping tool to work out where their buys came from – from seed to shop.

Karma exchange

Canadian Shannen O'Brian returned to Vancouver after living in West Africa with a single goal in mind: how to make charity sustainable? She founded a website, Karma Exchange, which offers its visitors discounts on everything from events, products and trips, just like Expedia, Group-On or eBay. The difference is that all the profits go to fund Create Change, a non-profit outfit providing access to clean water and education in northern Ghana.

Body heat to warm buildings

Excess heat is not the first thing you think of when it comes to Sweden – or saving the world – but in 2010, Jernhusen, a Stockholm property company, made a start. It uses the body heat from 250,000 daily commuters using Stockholm's Central Station to provide up to 15 per cent of the heating needs of a nearby building. Heat exchangers in the station's ventilation system transfer the excess body heat into hot water, which is then piped into the building.

Talent swapping

Raise5 is a fundraising platform designed to "enable anyone to volunteer on their schedule". One person donates a small service or task – from teaching a 15-minute French lesson to setting up a new laptop – while another person goes online and buys the service, donating the money to a charity of his or her choice.

Say cheese

Kate and Lee Johnson so enjoyed a photo booth at a wedding in America, they brought a photo-and-video-booth-inspired hire service to the UK to "provide entertainment, fun and laughter through dressing up" and providing fun photos for all occasions. They donate 10 per cent of their time to providing free services for charities, including Operation Smile. The company uses cloud-base and e-shot marketing strategies.

The world's most ethical football

Four Harvard students realised two things: children all around the world play football and most have homes without reliable electricity. The idea for Soccket was born. Based on a gyroscopic mechanism, the innovative ball captures energy during play and then stores the power for later use. The portable energy generator can be used to power mobile phone chargers, batteries or LED lamps. It takes only 30 minutes of playing football to power a lamp for three hours. The balls are produced and distributed by a non-profit company, Uncharted Play.