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?

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