Boosting green entrepreneurs

Sian Berry argues the slow growth in green industries demonstrates more action is needed

It’s amazing how slowly things happen sometimes. This week I visited Pli Design, one of a growing number of green manufacturing companies in south east London, at their workshop in Dulwich. While we filmed a short report on business policy for the local news, the owner, Christopher Pett, told me how he imagined, when they started making sustainable furniture in 2003, that they would be jumping onto the back of a well-filled bandwagon. In fact what he found was that he was joining a very small group of business people who can only be described as pioneers.

The slow growth in green industries means unfortunate gaps in the supply chain, too. When looking for an alternative to formaldehyde-filled MDF, Chris found that he couldn’t source eco-friendly, waste straw fibre, compostable fibreboard from anywhere in this country. No company in the UK was able to supply him, so importing materials from China was the only option. This is a shame when we’re not exactly short of waste straw in this country and could easily make what he needs closer to home.

What we do have, however, is lots of old, unwanted games consoles, leading to what I found the most exciting of Pli’s products. The ‘Reee’ chair has been made possible by the European WEEE Directive, which means producers of electronic equipment have to collect back old products at the same time as filling the world with new gadgets.

The plastic casings from games machines are an ideal raw material for the back and seat of the Reee chair. Being a ‘pure’ material, in contrast to most plastic collected for recycling from households (which is mixed up with all kinds of other bits and pieces) its mechanical and aesthetic properties are known precisely. And, while the plastic’s flame retardant content is too low to meet regulations for new games consoles, it has excellent fireproofing by office chair standards.

The reason I’m so excited by this is that it’s a great example of real re-cycling, not the down-cycling you get with mixed collections, which means recycled products are often lower-grade and lower-tech than the original product. And, because the material is kept pure while making the chairs, it can be used again for a similar grade product in the future. This is fantastic stuff, but in one way it’s also quite depressing. William McDonough and Michael Braungart’s inspiring book ‘Cradle to Cradle’ was published back in 2002, but this is the first time I’ve actually met with a business that is really putting their principles into practice.

The fact is we’re changing things far too slowly, which is why I’m hoping my campaign for the London elections this year can do more to help businesses like Pli to grow, and help more businesses working in green manufacturing to spring up right across the city.

The major problems these companies face is the availability and cost of premises, and the difficulty - as a small company - of securing contracts to supply larger businesses and public bodies. The new planning rules I propose, which will require workshops and office to be made available at affordable rents in new developments, will see opportunities increased for start-up businesses. And to help them grow, I am proposing a central hub that will compile joint bids for larger contracts from a range of smaller, local businesses.

Providing this service will solve problems for both buyers and suppliers. For the small businesses, it’s risky to rely heavily on one customer, so a clearing house that spreads the risk across a range of contracts is ideal. On the other side, buyers for public bodies and large companies may want to support smaller companies, but may be put off by the complexities of setting up multiple contracts – problems which are also eased by having a central point of contact.

These plans are integral to building a better economy for London. The problem is that we are far too reliant on a small number of large companies for employment, and far too reliant on cheap oil to import almost everything we consume. By helping companies like Pli and building up a more diverse economy, we are also building an economy that will be more resilient to whatever problems develop in our current major industries. After all, what are the Greens for, if not building a more secure future?

Sian Berry lives in Kentish Town and was previously a principal speaker and campaigns co-ordinator for the Green Party. She was also their London mayoral candidate in 2008. She works as a writer and is a founder of the Alliance Against Urban 4x4s
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To heal Britain’s cracks, it’s time for us northern graduates in London to return home

Isn’t it time for people like me, who’ve had privileges and experiences not open to everyone, to start heading back to our local communities, rather than reinforcing London’s suffocating dominance?

I’m from Warrington. The least cultured town in the UK. My town.

I moved to London almost exactly five years ago. Not because I particularly wanted to. Not because I wanted to depart the raucous northern town that I still call home. Because it was my only choice, really. I’d done my stint in the call centres and had some fun. But that couldn’t, surely, be my lot?

After university, I’d already started feeling a little weird and out of place back in Wazza. There were fewer and fewer people who didn’t look at me like I’d just fallen off a futuristic space flight that’d given me a different accent and lofty ideals.

Of course, that’s because most people like me had already skipped town without looking back and were all in the capital trying to strike beyond the ordinary.

The young, the cities, the metropolitan elite are still reeling after last week’s vote and wondering how people, half of our people, have got it so horribly wrong. We’re different, divided, done for.  

One thing I’ve clung onto while I’ve been in London is the fact that I’m from Warrington and proud. It might not be a cultured town, but it’s my town.

But I wasn’t proud of the outcome of the EU referendum that saw my town vote 54.3 per cent to 45.7 per cent to leave.

To be fair, even in my new “home” borough of Hackney, east London, the place with the third-largest Remain vote, one in five people voted for Brexit.

Yes, in one of London’s hottest and most international neighbourhoods, there are quite a lot of people who don’t feel like they’re being taken along to the discotheque.

Perversely, it was the poorest places in the UK that voted in largest numbers to leave the EU – that’s the same EU that provides big chunks of funding to try to save those local economies from ruin.

In many ways, of course, I understand the feelings of those people back in the place I still sometimes think of as home.

Compared to many suffering places in the UK, Warrington is a “boom town” and was one of the only places that grew during the last recession.

It’s a hub for telecoms and logistics companies, because, ironically, its good transport links make it an easy place to leave.

But there are many people who aren’t “living the dream” and, like anywhere else, they aren’t immune from the newspaper headlines that penetrate our brains with stories of strivers and scroungers.

Warrington is one of the whitest places in the UK, and I’m sure, to many locals, that means those immigrants are only a few towns away. There’s already a Polski sklep or two. And a few foreign taxi drivers. Those enterprising bastards.

We have never seriously addressed the economic imbalance in our economy. The gaping north-south divide. The post-industrial problem that politicians in Westminster have handily ignored, allowing the gap to be filled by those who find it quick and easy to blame immigrants.

When schemes like HS2, which is plotted to smash right through the place I grew up, are pushed against all of the evidence, instead of a much-needed, intercity Leeds to Liverpool investment to replace the two-carriage hourly service, it’s like positively sticking two fingers up to the north.

But I am also a big problem. People like me, who get educated and quickly head off to London when things aren’t going our way. We invested in ourselves, sometimes at state expense, and never really thought about putting that back into the places where we grew up.

There weren’t the right opportunities back home and that still stands. But, rather than doing something about that, people like me lazily joined the gravy train for London and now we’re surprised we feel more kinship with a 20-something from Norway than we do with someone who we used to knock on for when we should have been at school.

That’s not to suggest that our experiences in the capital – or mine at least – haven’t made us a thousand, million times better. 

I’ve met people who’ve lived lives I would never have known and I’m a profoundly better person for having the chance to meet people who aren’t just like me. But to take that view back home is increasingly like translating a message to someone from an entirely different world.

“You know, it’s only because you live in a country like this that a woman like you is allowed to even say things like that,” assured one of my dad’s friends down at the British Legion after we’d had a beer, and an argument or two.

Too right, pal. We live in what we all like to think is an open and tolerant and progressive society. And you’re now saying I shouldn’t use that right to call you out for your ignorance?

We’re both Warringtonians, English, British and European but I can increasingly find more agreement with a woman from Senegal who’s working in tech than I can with you.

It’s absolutely no secret that London has drained brains from the rest of the country, and even the rest of the world, to power its knowledge economy.

It’s a special place, but we have to see that there are many people clamouring for jobs they are far too qualified for, with no hope of saving for a home of their own, at the expense of the places they call home.

It’s been suggested in the past that London becomes its own city-state, now Londoners are petitioning to leave the UK.

But isn’t it time for people like me, who’ve had privileges and experiences not open to everyone, to start heading back to our local communities, rather than reinforcing London’s suffocating dominance?

We can expect local governments to do more with less, but when will we accept we need people power back in places like Warrington if we want to change the story to one of hope?

If this sounds like a patronising plan to parachute the north London intelligentsia into northern communities to ensure they don’t make the same mistake twice... Get fucked, as they say in Warrington.

It was Warrington that raised me. It’s time I gave something back.

Kirsty Styles is editor of the New Statesman's B2B tech site, NS Tech.