Interview: May Al-Karooni of Globechain on why business is finally coming round to the circular economy

May Al-Karooni is the founder and CEO of Globechain – an award-winning British reuse marketplace that connects businesses to charities and SMEs to redistribute free unwanted items. She spoke to Environment Journal about changing mindsets around the circular economy and whether we have too many ‘things’.

Why did you come up with the idea for Globechain?

I was working in an investment bank and the facilities department where I worked disposed of a hefty amount of furniture and computer equipment when moving offices – costing it around £50,000 per person, and there were 300 people in the building. While that included labour and costs, we were only going across the road! Shocked by these statistics and the sheer level of waste, I began to think, why has no one digitalised this?  Airbnb and Uber were just starting to hit the market – and so Globechain was born.

Is the concept of a circular economy taken more seriously now with businesses compared with 5 years ago?

When I founded Globechain just five years ago, explaining the circular economy and its viability as a business model was challenging. Today it has an estimated market cap of $5 trillion by 2025!

The environmental movement is growing, millennials are increasingly motivated by shared brand values, and sustainability will be key to our future survival, so the circular economy is very much a growing sector.

The circular economy is becoming core to a company’s reputation as well as investor and customer loyalty and future growth prospects. When I first set up Globechain, no one used the terms ‘reuse’ or ‘social impact’. Companies were slow to take up the model on a large scale as they had never come across something like it.

Over the last two years, the circular economy has become more mainstream, and drivers from government to consumer are forcing change for the better. I believe the next generation of business will be commercial with a conscience, where business will be making money and doing ‘good’ business at the same time.

Is part of the problem with waste that we want too many unnecessary ‘things’? How do we change this mindset?

Over the last two years, statistics show that people were buying less and spending more on experiences. The new Gen Z and Millenniums are actually more conscious about their waste and who they spend their money with, so I don’t believe going forwards we want more.

We are going back to better quality and fewer ‘things’. Companies, especially in the retail space, are struggling to change quickly enough due to their size, but also see a shift in consumer behaviour and business behaviour. We have become a fast-paced society where we have been spoilt by being able to access things and buy on online in a quicker, cheaper and hassle free way.

This puts pressures on transport (carbon emissions, people (manufacturing) and returns of goods which if not resold gets incinerated. I think there is an element of education and transparency that needs to be disclosed so people are aware of the consequences if they choose these options.

Would you like to see tighter legislation on customer returns?

It’s not just customer returns. There need to be incentives, tax rebates and framework changes to encourage and motivate businesses to change, the way they operate throughout the supply chain. Large companies’ own policies need to change, especially when the reason for those companies not donating goods is because they are concerned they do not want to devalue their brand image; It is sensible to assume this would happen eventually should they not choose

You mentioned difficulties in the retail sector, are you seeing retail companies now adapting their business models to adopt more sustainable practices and save money?

Yes, we have had an influx the last month of retailers jumping on board. This is due to the agenda being more mainstream, a consumer movement, and also the people who work at these companies actually do care. They see the waste and want to be more innovative. There are also major cost savings to being more sustainable and this can be a good way to help keep jobs and create new skills and employment. Sign off from higher up the company hierarchy allows management to be more pioneering. The industry is changing, and the majority of retailers realise they need to change, or they won’t survive.

What is the most unusual item you’ve managed to redistribute to a charity?

There have been many! We have over 200,000 items listed worth 5 million kilos diverted. The best was a car – a Nissan Micra, we’ve had a lift donated, 13,000 pallets of brand new kitchens, and 70 fire doors.

Thomas Barrett

Thomas Barrett

Journalist. Follow him on Twitter

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