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Pioneering a green empire

8 March 2021 at 9:43 pm
Maggie Coggan
Sally Quinn is the co-founder of Green Collect, a social enterprise transforming hard-to-recycle items into useful products, while also employing people who face barriers to work. She’s this week’s Changemaker. 

Maggie Coggan | 8 March 2021 at 9:43 pm


Pioneering a green empire
8 March 2021 at 9:43 pm

Sally Quinn is the co-founder of Green Collect, a social enterprise transforming hard-to-recycle items into useful products, while also employing people who face barriers to work. She’s this week’s Changemaker. 

Green Collect has come a long way since its first pilot program in 2001. 

Using their backgrounds in social work and environmental management, Sally Quinn and co-founder Darren Andrews started out rescuing cork discarded by the hospitality industry from landfill. By 2005, they realised they were onto something, and turned to other industries.  

These days, the enterprise works with over 200 businesses across Melbourne, finding the best environmental outcome for items that would otherwise end up in landfill. From folders to fold-back clips, electronics to expired letterhead, computers to cartridges, the Green Collect team processed 125 tonnes of waste last year, all diverted from landfill.  

While the waste they collect is slightly different these days, the business’ mission has always been two-fold, with a second goal of providing job opportunities for people facing barriers to employment. 

As well as this, Green Collect is actively breaking down barriers for women working in the male-dominated waste industry, by ensuring that 50 per cent of their workers are women.    

In 2019, Green Collect was named the Social Enterprise of the Year in the small enterprise category by the national organisation Social Traders, and more recently Quinn was named one of this year’s Westpac Scholars, receiving tailored support to accelerate her growth as a social innovator.

In this week’s Changemaker, Quinn discusses what it takes to run a social enterprise and why it’s important to align her personal and professional values. 

Where did the idea for Green Collect come from?  

I worked in youth work services for about six years, and that experience for me, working with people experiencing multiple areas of disadvantage and in crisis housing services, really got me thinking about what are some of the ways we can work with people in those situations and break those cycles rather than moving from one crisis housing place to another. I worked with passionate women, skilled women, women who’d had previous careers, who found themselves in a crisis housing situation. I worked with a number of women to try to find employment while they were in crisis or transitional housing situations, and what really became evident was that without a fixed address, it’s really hard to get a job. And without a job, it’s pretty impossible to get a fixed address or secure housing on the private market. So I just started thinking, you know, if I could do something about this, I would love to run a business where the people we employed were people in crisis or who, just because of their circumstances, didn’t have access to the network, the opportunities that would allow them to use their skills and really reach their potential or their employment goals. 

But having no financial backing or business experience was holding me back a bit. My partner, Darren, was finishing his study in environmental policy and planning and he was seeing a real gap and need for better resource recovery services. So this is going back about 20 years now. We were both in our late 20s, at that point in our careers where we were thinking how do we have a real impact that addresses things in new ways and looks for solutions that really get both respect for people and respect for the earth. And so we had this idea that maybe we could start an environmental business and we could decide who gets those opportunities for career development and secure employment. 

And what are some of the biggest achievements of Green Collect since you started in 2001? 

We incorporated in 2005 and became a standalone social enterprise. Setting that up and proving the business model and that there was a need for new environmental services that pushed us beyond recycling was really exciting. Back then, recycling was seen as the solution to things which we all know now is not the case.

The other achievement would be the culture of our workplace. We’re all staff regardless of [our] backgrounds, and it’s a very respectful work culture where we acknowledge that we all have things to contribute and add, but that all of us face barriers. I feel really proud of our work culture that gives people opportunity and helps them to see themselves in a different way, too. We’ve had staff who’ve gone on to do certificate training, staff whose kids have finished school and gone on to uni. Seeing that long-term change in people’s lives when they’re given the opportunity to secure high-quality work is really amazing.

The waste industries are incredibly male dominated, and our workforce is 50 per cent women and the majority of people in leadership roles are women. So that’s something I feel really proud of, the way that women are shaping history in an industry. There’s room for us to care and nurture resources in a way that typically the waste industry hasn’t. So that’s something I feel really proud of, the way that women are shaping history in this industry.

How do you, as a leader of a business like this, keep yourself grounded through challenging moments? 

Because we’ve been working in the sector and ongoing for such a long time, there’s definitely been lots of different parts on the journey that have been challenging. When we were able to invest in other staff to help lead and drive the vision was really important. Building a board that could really drive the vision as well, so that it became something that was not just held by Darren and myself was a really important thing for us to do at the right time. That has meant that we know that Green Collect is sustainable beyond our involvement.

Forming really good connections with other founders and social entrepreneurs and being able to share the experiences with others and understand that lots of the struggles are common has been important as well. 

We started Green Collect when we had our first child, who’s now 20, and we now have four children, and I really wanted to be conscious of what I was putting into Green Collect and what I wanted in life outside of the business as well. Family has always been a priority for me, but juggling needing to be so dedicated to work while also living that first priority of care and love for your family has been tough at times. So part of that has been recognising how the values that we live out through Green Collect are aligned with the values that we live out personally. And I think that value alignment does create a sense of connection and meaning in the things that we do.

What do you love most about your job?

I love working with our team and I love collaborating, and I love seeing people discover new skills or talents or shifting something about the way they’ve seen themselves and their capabilities. We’re able to create a space where people can really have an expansive view of what they can do and what happens when people get to take action and use their skills and achieve something that maybe they thought they couldn’t. I love the creativity of a business that is always changing and evolving as well. The sectors we work in, the environment sector and the social enterprise sector, are both thriving and growing and changing and I love understanding where we fit in those ecosystems and the collaborations that are possible for the future where we are all working towards goals for a better world.

What do you like to do with your time when you’re not at Green Collect?

I just love being in nature. For me, that is the ultimate kind of restoration and sense of connection to the Earth and a deeper sense of time and what has gone before us and what I hope for the future. It’s about seeking out those really deeply immersive experiences in nature. I also love hanging out with my kids. I think it is so important to take time out and reset and do things like spending time with my kids, because I suppose for me, that’s my greatest joy.

Maggie Coggan  |  Journalist  |  @MaggieCoggan

Maggie Coggan is a journalist at Pro Bono News covering the social sector.

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