In February I sent my 100th invoice as a freelancer. It’s quite a milestone considering that self-employment was only supposed to be a temporary arrangement when I left my last job in 2017.
I originally went freelance to self-fund a year travelling in Europe and always assumed I’d return to the world of regular employment once I got back. Somehow though things just continued to grow, bit by bit, and now here I am with a full-time enterprise and an invoice history that’s ticked into three figures.
It’s as good a time as any to look back on some of the most rewarding projects I’ve been able to contribute to over the last couple of years…
Oxford to Edinburgh, Brighton to Glasgow: Exploring the future of community wood recycling
In 2019 I was approached by award-winning social enterprise EMERGE Recycling to conduct a market research project on the UK’s wood recycling and reuse sector.
EMERGE runs a community wood project called Touch Wood, which collects scrap wood from the Greater Manchester area and repurposes it for reuse, either as sawn timber for DIY or manufactured into unique products in their workshop (they make everything from garden planters to stunning tables made from old indoor cycling track).
Why is Touch Wood important? Well, the UK generates around five million tonnes of waste wood each year, but less than 1% is reused. Much of it is good quality timber that ends up either landfilled or turned into low quality woodchip.
Touch Wood is part of a national network of community reuse and recycling projects that save wood from the scrapheap and keep it circulating in the local economy. Anything that can’t be reused is recycled locally, so nothing goes to waste.
EMERGE wanted to explore Touch Wood’s full potential. My job was to understand the supply and demand for reclaimed wood in Greater Manchester, identify future trends in the sector and discover best practice approaches to boosting collections and sales.
The project included interviews with key figures in the wood recycling sector and visits to a number of other successful community projects across the country. I met some brilliant people doing amazing things to prevent wood going to landfill – from turning old whisky barrels into furniture in Glasgow to producing beautiful shelving from scaffold boards in Brighton.
Touch Wood has since launched a website and taken on new staff. Find out more at www.touchwood.org.uk.
On the road to carbon neutral: Getting inspired by Greater Manchester’s green businesses
I’ve worked with GC Business Growth Hub since I went freelance in 2017. The Hub’s services are fully funded, which means businesses can access expert advice and guidance at no cost. This is incredibly important for smaller businesses, especially in the context of the climate emergency.
99% of businesses are SMEs (small and medium sized enterprises). Every single one will need to play their part in the transition to a greener economy. If they don’t, not only will they fall behind and risk going out of business when it becomes too late to catch up; it will also be almost impossible for us to hit our carbon targets.
The problem is, most small businesses have neither the resources nor the time on their hands to understand what they need to do and how to do it. In fact, even when they have this information and the means to take action, research shows they often won’t. This is what economists call ‘market failure’, which is where organisations like the Hub come in.
In 2020, I began helping the Hub to produce a new series of Q&A interviews with some of the many businesses who have benefitted from their advice on resource efficiency and sustainability. As a result, I’ve had the pleasure of talking to some really inspirational business people across Greater Manchester.
When you start digging, you realise that we’re actually surrounded by forward-thinking small businesses who are doing their bit to make a difference. It’s these little stories that fill me with hope.
A ray of light in dark times: Celebrating the selfless people fighting food poverty
Unless you were living in a cave last year, you’ll probably have heard about footballer Marcus Rashford’s campaign against food poverty. The Manchester United and England star used his platform to raise awareness of the appalling number of people struggling to put food on the table in the UK – an issue that was already a national disgrace before Covid but was made even worse by the pandemic.
In the midst of an economic crash and tens of thousands of people losing their jobs, the government almost got away with refusing to provide free school meals to children in need. Then Marcus Rashford came along and almost single-handedly forced the Prime Minister into a complete U-turn.
I say ‘almost single-handedly’ because behind Marcus Rashford is a largely invisible army of volunteers and charities who have been working ever harder in recent years to tackle food poverty. One of these is FareShare, a national charity that redistributes surplus food to frontline organisations like food banks and food clubs.
FareShare Greater Manchester, FareShare’s largest regional hub, was hit particularly hard by Covid. Demand for their food almost doubled when the first lockdown hit, peaking at around 50,000 people.
Thanks to the incredible support of volunteers and fundraisers, they managed to distribute nearly one thousand tonnes of food during the first lockdown period, equivalent to around 2.3 million meals. People from all walks of life, from bus drivers to marooned students, stepped forward to help.
FareShare GM asked me to help them pull together a special report to tell this amazing story and show everyone what their support had achieved. In what was a dark, dark year for so many people, it was humbling to see how much we can achieve when we pull together to help others.
You can find the report here.
Top of the pile: Helping one small business to national stardom for its environmental ethos
Every now and then, you come across an organisation that decides to step out from the shadows and refuse to play ball with the status quo. I met one in 2019 in the form of Rochdale manufacturer Crystal Doors.
Led by Rochdale local Richard Hagan – who I’m sure won’t mind being described as a bit of a maverick – from a distance Crystal Doors may seem like any normal small manufacturer. But step up to their front door and you’ll notice immediately that this is no ordinary business.
For starters, there’s a huge sign on the side of the factory calling on you to join them in tackling the climate crisis. In the forecourt is a Nissan LEAF charging up for its next electric journey. On top of the roof, every spare square inch is covered in solar panels.
Step over the threshold and there’s more. Super-efficient machinery and smart robots work away beneath hanging signs that promote the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. Heating is self-supplied by a huge biomass boiler fed entirely by waste from the production process.
Dig deeper and it keeps getting better. ‘Carbon literate’ employees, a carbon footprint that is 80% of the way to carbon neutral (to be achieved later this year), and a radical plan to offload customers and suppliers who aren’t willing to commit to their own sustainability plan.
There’s also a huge amount going on to encourage and support others on their own journey to sustainability, from an online ‘knowledge hub’ of videos and podcasts to Richard’s near-endless number of engagements and talks on the subject with major business organisations.
You might think a story like this can tell itself just fine without someone like me getting involved. It does certainly help when you have such a strong narrative to begin with, but I’m happy to say I’ve been able to give Crystal Doors that little bit ‘extra’ that has helped propel them from local mould-breaker to national stardom.
In February, they won the UK’s most prestigious environmental sector award for a small business, and by the end of 2021 I’d be surprised if anyone worth their salt in corporate sustainability hasn’t heard their name.