Attracting the big fish and creating a community asset

As published on the Guardian “social enterprise” website

Looking back over the ten years since I started Green-Works I’ve had a chance to reflect both on what we’ve achieved and what’s still left to do. In the beginning we saw that office furniture was being discarded by large commercial and government organisations on an enormous scale. Not only was it being discarded but most of it was being dumped in landfill. As well as being a terrible waste of resources, it was also as a lost opportunity to help other smaller organisations who couldn’t afford new furniture.

Adopting a Robin Hood mentality we decided to take advantage of this shortfall. We clean, repair and even re-manufacture unwanted furniture from big businesses so it can be reused. The refreshed pieces are sold to charities at cut prices. The profits are used to fund training for disadvantaged people in theUKand deliver much needed furniture to communities in developing countries.

A decade on and the wasted resource argument is broadly understood and large organisations are now routinely specifying some sort of recycling of their redundant furniture. However the community asset argument is still yet to be won. Useful, good quality, furniture is routinely broken up for scrap.  This means that  communities in theUKand across the developing world being denied the opportunity to improve their working and living conditions with better furniture. Moreover, the tremendous opportunities to train people in the very wide variety of skills that reuse demands are lost.

For us the key to making a real difference has been getting the large corporations on board and retaining them as satisfied customers. Attracting blue chips to social enterprise isn’t always easy but it can be done if you take the time to really understand them.

Firstly it’s critical to approach large organisations at scale. Businesses and government departments want to keep their supply chain simple. They want one organisation to run a whole service. In our case that means that we have to take all the furniture – good, bad or indifferent – within tough  timescales. This means removing hundreds of workstations at a weekend or clearing whole buildings within a couple of weeks. You must be willing and able to take on the whole contract.  We think that means working with partners to increase capacity for large projects.

These partners could come from both the social enterprise and commercial sectors. Most notably for Green-Works, our first large warehouse was set up by First Fruit who have run a very effective depot in eastLondonever since. Looking back, however, I realise that even with partners we were often undercapitalised. We’ve always made up for that short fall with sheer energy and commitment but it’s been a big gap to fill.

By proving we could work to scale we’ve moved the market. That’s partly due to another trait of large organisations; they are extremely adept at adopting new approaches once they’re shown to work. This is especially the case when the activity will show the business to be meeting best practice. So once we’d demonstrated (with a huge contract with HSBC) that we could reuse and recycle industrial amounts of furniture, other companies turned to Green-Works for the service.

With a big name happy client on board, you suddenly become a less risky, more attractive option. With a clear mission statement, CSR and environmental benefits, social enterprises can put themselves in a good position to tick multiple boxes for large corporations. It’s likely you will be awarded points for your values but good communication is vital otherwise you run the risk of simply seeming expensive. In this economy that’s the last thing you want people to associate with your organisation; even big companies with hefty budgets want to know they’re receiving good value for money.

It is hard work dealing with large organisations but all in all I think it was worth the enormous effort that was required to get ourselves up to the scale that corporate clients require.   It has enabled us to really help lots of people and organisations.  With such large contracts we have been able to help more than 15,000 small organisations with low cost furniture and perhaps even more rewarding we have given training and employment opportunities to more than 800 marginalised people.  None of that could have been achieved unless we’d operated at scale.