By Rebecca Greenberg
It has happened to all of us: during college, your cousin gave you his second-hand armoire, which you gratefully accepted because you were broke and didn’t care about how your place looked. But now you’ve grown up, you’re making a little money and you want to put a stylish spin on your apartment. So, what to do with the armoire? You could put it out on the corner with a sign that says “Free! Gratis!” Or you could haul it to the dump. Neither option is great, but a new alternative is becoming increasingly popular: retail salvage yards. In an effort to recycle items headed to landfills, to turn a profit and to create green-collar jobs, more and more facilities are popping up that offer an array of “salvaged design components” otherwise known as Lifestyle trash. Lifestyle trash is the cool, rusted wheel that is now the base of your coffee table. It’s the wine barrel that is serving as a planter in your backyard. It’s your deckchair that lived in a middle school classroom in its previous life. Lifestyle trash is chic and attractive for several reasons: it costs next to nothing, it saves things from being thrown away and, with a little elbow grease and some spray paint, it looks really cool.
Companies that sell lifestyle trash and other sorts of salvaged materials are appearing all over the nation. Perhaps the most notable example is Urban Ore, in Berkeley, California. Urban Ore has three acres of indoor and outdoor space that is chock-full of everything from antique toilets to computers to vintage bikes. Another fine example is Ohmega Salvage, an upscale purveyor of architectural salvage items: Victorian doors, art deco chandeliers and apothecary bottles.
From a business point of view, these lifestyle trash companies are a true example of a triple bottom line business model.
The salvaged goods are rescued from the landfill, cleaned and repaired, and then resold as usable items. As landfills become increasingly swollen, more and more businesses are realizing that the dump can be an inexpensive, accessible and untapped resource for goods and commodities. Likewise, consumers are growing resentful of ever-increasing prices for new items, and are transitioning into a more eco-conscious and simplified lifestyle. Urban Ore sources about 75% of its goods from the community in the form of donations. The local transfer station usually charges a fee for dumping, whereas Urban Ore will receive donated items free of charge. The other 25% of its products are salvaged directly from the dump. Urban Ore also breaks down non-usable items from the landfill and recycles them as commodities. Because the initial cost of collecting goods is either free or extremely inexpensive, Urban Ore is operating with a huge profit margin.
The trash is collected, repaired and merchandised and: voila! It’s lifestyle trash!
There is another side to this new retail phenomenon. Obviously, recycling is hugely important from an environmental point of view. And, clearly, the companies in this emerging market are profiting due to the fantastic profit margin. But these companies are also providing an important resource for green-collar workers. The Green Worker Cooperative in the Bronx is an example of how salvaged goods can create jobs and supply resources for a local community. Founded by Omar Freilla, the Green Worker Co-ops have a double-sided goal. The first project is a retail center for surplus and salvaged building materials. Community members own and operate the facility, which is an affordable retail resource for green-collar workers. The co-op also runs the Green Worker Co-op Academy which provides green job training. Who knew that trash could provide a platform for a perfect triple bottom line business model?
Rebecca Greenberg is a student at the Presidio School of Management, with a professional background in corporate retail. She was a member of the Sustainable Development Leadership team at Williams-Sonoma, Inc and the recipient of the 2008 “Eco-Awareness and Green Living” award. She has opened American clothing stores in the Middle East and designed Parisian club chairs to be manufactured in China. These exciting but appallingly unsustainable experiences have led to her passion for fair-trade retail and international sustainable development.