Alive & Kicking

No matter what else is going on across the UK right now, the reuse sector is very much alive and kicking, according to Dr Jane Beasley, but reuse organisations will need support in order to survive… and ultimately thrive

The country may be in a state of flux, with Brexit negotiations ongoing and a snap general election adding to the uncertainty, but the reuse sector is definitely alive and kicking, and exhibiting so much innovation and resilience it’s hard not be energised by its example.

Social enterprises, charities and reuse organisations have increasingly taken a pioneering role, recognising that the benefits of reuse extend way beyond the diversion of materials for a second life, with many organisations driven by an anti-poverty and social need agenda to provide good quality reused items for households that need support. Reuse touches so many issue and so many different stakeholders, but one of the difficulties has been – and continues to be – how to recognise and bring together these many strands in a coordinated strategic sense and maximise the opportunities that reuse presents.

The sector is incredibly diverse, ranging from large national organisations with comprehensive networks in place, right down to the micro level business run by one person. Whilst sharing many challenges, such as insufficient space, maintaining supply of quality items for reuse and a reliance on a volunteer workforce, the sector often exhibits varying degrees of ability to articulate robust business cases that can then draw the various stakeholders together effectively.

A lack of policy support (specifically in England), cuts in funding for social causes, vulnerability to the market place and fluctuating prices, alongside challenges of consistently sourcing goods and products of the right quality, mean that only the more business savvy and adaptable reuse organisations have a greater chance of surviving in the medium to long-term.

In practical terms, for reuse organisations to flourish, flow and management of stock is essential; you need customers interested in what you have to offer for your business model to work. In addition, as availability and levels of funding have diminished significantly over recent years, organisations have needed to maximise the value they can get from products; we have seen the emergence of more “upcycling” at one end of the scale, and we have also seen charity pound stores opening up at the other end of the scale, all pointing to an increase in flexibility and commercial acumen amongst reuse organisations.

Local government remains a vital element in the development of reuse as a viable operation. However, the relationships between local authorities and third sector organisations are variable; where they work well, they really deliver on the reuse agenda – where they don’t, they can hold back progress. Whilst developing a relationship with local government may not be as crucial as securing positive relationships with donors, customers, staff and volunteers, it can play an integral or complementary role to developing those wider relationships.

It’s worth noting that there is a sense that whilst the reuse sector has evolved over time, the relationship with local government has not necessarily evolved at the same rate, and certainly how local authorities procure services and their priorities for procurement remains a barrier in a lot of cases.

The challenges posed by procurement are in part due to some of the wider social and welfare-related benefits of reuse being ignored, undervalued or simply unrecognised. More cross-department working, both at a national and local government level, is required to provide at least a partial solution to this challenge. However, for long-term sustainability, austerity should not drive reuse; it needs to be part of an integrated approach and not simply become a sticking plaster solution for wider social ills. Therefore, there is work to be done here with a view to enabling and unlocking more of the potential.

The sector continues to thrive on the commitment of individuals, and through their hard work the wider benefits of reuse are being realised and lives are being changed.

Dr Jane Beasley is the director of Beasley Associates Ltd. She has been an Associate of Local Partnerships since 2011, a former employee of CIWM and is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts and a Chartered Waste Manager

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