Meet the platform taking reuse global
Four years ago, online reuse platform Globechain was merely the pipe dream of a disillusioned investment banker, May Al-Karooni. Today, it has collected the Launch Nordic award and won Highly Commended at the Dell’s People’s Choice Awards for the circular economy, and is on the verge of breaking into the North American and European markets, with the ambition of being the number one reuse platform in the world, according to its founder.
Al-Karooni tells me: “It’s a technology platform and it connects corporates to charities, small businesses, individuals, start-ups, whoever really wants to take items, and the basic idea behind it is to encourage and enable people to reuse and redistribute goods.
“The idea behind it is that corporates upload the unwanted goods in bulk [onto the website] and alerts get sent to the members and whoever is interested requests the item on the site and basically picks it up for free. Our system then collates a social impact waste audit on the giving, so we actually break down the social, economic and environmental impacts.
“We collect data on things like if people reused items, how much did that save them, if they resold them how much money did they make, if they helped indirectly with up-skilling or employment levels, if they helped them with grant funding and so on.”
The aim of this data collection is to assess the social impacts of the goods passed from one group or individual to another, which can help givers achieve corporate social responsibility goals or community engagement.
An idea whose time had come?
According to its founder, Globechain’s growth in the past four years has been significant, and it all stemmed from one moment when Al-Karooni’s former employers were moving offices. She recalls: “The way Globechain came about is that the bank I used to work for disposed of quite a hefty amount of furniture and computer equipment when moving offices and the move cost around £50,000 per person. Obviously that’s everything, including logistics and labour, but we had 300 people in the building so that’s a lot of money, and we were only going across the road!
“There was nothing convenient, there was nothing digitalising waste at that time – Airbnb and Uber were just starting to hit the market – and so that’s how I set it up, to be honest. We’ve been going three years officially, and four years in work, making our name.”
One of the logistical problems associated with the platform is how to deliver the items from the giving company to the receiver, but Al-Karooni tells me the digital revolution has an answer for that as well (when it’s needed): “I would say that most of our charities do have their own man and van, or they’ve got their own logistics access, but we’ve partnered up with a kind of Uber for couriers, a Norwegian firm, and they’re basically just plugged in as an API integration into our site and we offer a cheaper courier service if people need it.”
In the four years that it has been operating, Globechain has logged 10,000 members across the UK and Europe, including Simba Mattresses and Radisson Hotels. Simba Mattresses pass on unwanted mattresses to Globechain to redistribute among its network of charities and has helped Globechain move into Europe, while Radisson Hotels’ first donation was 4,000 pillow and duvet sets, which were snapped up in the first 24 hours.
Globechain has also been involved in emergency aid work during the Ebola and refugee crises in the past few years, linking businesses in the UK with charities working on the frontline. The platform helped to secure tonnes of medical equipment, kitting out two hospitals, a school and a local authority office in the affected area, something Al-Karooni is particularly proud of. “When something works, it’s always nice to hear a nice story, especially from the charity side. For example, I think the fact we got the logistics right and helped charities send stuff to Africa was an interesting one because we tried to make it localised based on the local supply chain, but to interlink global supply chains has been good. Some people think you are just dumping it in Africa. But these charities that have been set up are very specific in what they want.
Al-Karooni herself sounds a little astounded by the success of the platform: “I think a big part of it is timing, it’s just been a bit like magic with companies. It's not a hard sell – I think companies are desperate to find solutions, they understand the scenario.
“We’ve never had funding, so I basically funded it myself. And the reason we didn’t have funding is because the investment arena in the UK is very risk-averse for new business ideas. We’ve had to be really innovative to grow, and I think that has been the success of it to be honest.”
A place in the circular economy
Given Globechain’s commitment to prolonging the life of unwanted items, I ask Al-Karooni about where the company fits in to the circular economy, and she tells me that it is “part of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and part of an SME programme via the GLA [Greater London Authority] at their city hall”, while Al-Karooni has personally attended courses and sits in on a lot of the EMF results frameworks.
While Al-Karooni acknowledges that Globechain isn’t completely circular, given that it is a profit-making business and simply “prolonging the use of goods”, she sees a lot of potential for the platform to provide a springboard for technological innovation that can spur a new wave of ecodesign and sustainable technology advancements: “What I think is interesting in the industry is there is definitely movement in there and there’s going to be some amazing technology and processes to come out of the circular economy.” She adds: “We’re already getting eco-designers on the site. So I think that’s how we will transition.”
May sees the company not as a waste company, but a technology company with a focus on sustainability, and one that has a particular focus on data: “I think technology can enable efficiency better, it can streamline data. When I first started, there was no data in the market, no reuse data anyway. It was all recycling. And looking at Defra and EU documents for reuse and recycling targets, I couldn’t work out the market cap of the industry as a business because it was new. So we felt ‘let’s create it’ – in a crazy way!”
Something for something
One of the largest challenges for proponents of the circular economy is persuading corporates to get involved, and Al-Karooni feels that the key to doing so is putting forward the commercial benefits of moving to a circular approach: “You’ll never get away with persuading a corporate to do something sustainably if it costs them more money – it just won’t happen unless there’s someone who is really passionate, that’s just not their focus. You have to position it from it being commercial, and I think that’s where we do it better, if you like, than other people because from my corporate background I understand what corporates are doing.
“When you are talking to sustainability people and facilities people, they see the waste and they see it’s a shame and see what they’re sending. But corporates could love your system to the ends of the earth, but if they can’t persuade a board or the financial director that by a little bit more change of behaviour or hassle for a short period of time they could actually save money, it’s going to be really difficult for them to implement new things.”
That incentive to prove commercial worth to businesses is not only incumbent on platforms such as Globechain, but also the government. “We are actually doing something quite interesting where we’ve just commissioned a university to look at putting a paper together to position to the Treasury on corporates to reuse more, to get a tax rebate, or a VAT rebate, similar to what Sweden's just done on repairing. So, we're working on that for the next nine months, and we'll hopefully put that in just after the budget, in June or July time.
“I think there’s a lot the government can do on a tax perspective to encourage companies to start thinking in other ways. In that way, if you can justify the macroeconomic benefits of that, job creation, up-skilling, new innovation, to the government, that makes it a more viable proposition to the Treasury, and so I think it’s important to show to the government that it improves the economy in some shape or form, as well as the environmental aspects.”
A bright future
When asked about Globechain’s strategy for the next few quarters, Al-Karooni indicates she thinks the sky really is the limit. “We want to scale into Europe and look at the US where we’re currently having some conversations. We won an accelerator to go to Mexico and look at scaling there and I can say we’ve got a big brewery there that’s interested in pioneering it out there, so we're going to have a few meetings about that. To be honest with you, it’s just kind of global domination! But I think our main objective if you like is to be the reuse platform globally for local and global supply chains.”