From the catwalk to the garden: The social enterprise leader growing jobs for the unemployed
24 February 2020 at 8:17 am
Toby Whittington is the founder and CEO of Green World Revolution, a social enterprise that’s doing its bit for the planet and lifting people out of long-term unemployment. He’s this week’s Changemaker.
Whittington has led many lives. For nearly 10 years he worked as a “living statue” street performer across the world before he fell into the world of fashion, where he started a successful fashion label that he thought he would run forever.
But finding out that he couldn’t have kids flipped his perspective, and he realised that he wanted to do something that helped others.
Green World Revolution is an urban farm nestled in east Perth, that grows and delivers produce (by bicycle) to the majority of the city’s high-end restaurants and cafes.
Since mid 2015, the enterprise has set up six paid positions for people who are experiencing long-term unemployment, as well as providing countless more short-term jobs and work experience placements for people stuck in a cycle of unemployment.
The enterprise is also helping to reduce the pollution that comes with food transportation, reducing waste by collecting and composting restaurant food waste and reusing substantial amounts of packaging.
Whittington has also recently been awarded the Westpac Social Change Fellowship for his efforts.
In this week’s Changemaker, he discusses the challenges of social enterprise, why he loves his job, and how being a street performer prepared him for his current job.
Where did the idea for Green World Revolution come from?
I was running my own fashion label up until I was diagnosed with Klinefelter syndrome in 2009. The syndrome means I can’t have children and that really changed my perspective on life.
I still wanted to make a contribution to the world in the same way that people do when they have children, where they put all their hopes, dreams and expectations and everything they’ve learnt into their children to make a contribution to the betterment of our culture and society. I wanted to do that, but realised that I would have to do it with my own hands, and perhaps the fashion industry was not going to deliver the sort of impact that I was looking for.
Around that time I was doing some guerrilla gardening around my local neighborhood in East Perth, and my mother, who was already running her own NFP asked if I wanted to set up an organisation that involved social impact and gardening.
I jumped at the opportunity to do great work environmentally and at the same time create jobs for unemployed people.
What kind of impact have you been able to have?
We’ve been operating for over eight years and in that time we have worked with over 500 long-term unemployed people through the Work for the Dole scheme and through providing work experience opportunities. We have created employment for 25 individual people and at the moment we employ six people. Three of those people have come through Work for the Dole and they are now completely off the dole.
We’re also running four horticulture programs across East Perth, and supply food to most of the top restaurants in the city.
How did you manage the transition from being a fashion designer?
It has been very challenging to embark on running a business like this without any horticultural background or any NFP background in running a company. I have been learning on the job for the last eight years and I think I’m keeping up well, but it hasn’t been without its challenges.
Before fashion, I worked as a living statue street performer for 10 years, working around the world. I think that the job really helped me be able to notice people’s behaviors and be really observant of all humans, and I think those skills have been really helpful in the social enterprise space.
I also have a natural way of working with the unemployed participants. I know it’s really important to nurture them and to not just treat them as numbers moving through our program so we can grow veggies for restaurants.
What would you say is the best part about running a social enterprise like this?
Having an impact on other people’s lives has been amazing. It’s also been really interesting to watch my team, who first started out as participants of the program, become really interested in making a contribution to the environment.
When we started out, we wanted to help the environment and help unemployed people. I quickly realised that what we actually needed to do was help unemployed people and then they would be able to help the environment. Someone who has been out of work for a long time is not thinking about the environment [as their first priority] but once they are more stable and they have an income and are working in an environmental area such as our urban garden, they see what they can do to contribute. So being involved in that process is really satisfying.
And one final question, any books you’d recommend?
I’m actually reading about five books at the moment, but I am loving Direct Action by Jacquie Svenson, which is a fictional book about climate change and the environment. Really interesting and I would definitely recommend it.