By Natasha Almond, Founder of Living Interiors, York, UK and collaborator in the Social Economy in Higher Education Project
York had a thriving voluntary, community and social enterprise sector; however, to continue to expand it has to diversify its income stream away from grant dependency. Within my work as a development officer at York CVS, I have had the opportunity to support some organisations in the sector to consider news ways of generating income. I observed the tensions within some trading social enterprises between staying true to the principles in developing meaningful opportunities for disabled people and the ability to develop a robust business model to bring in work.
Why I started Living Interiors
I believe meaningful work is a key contributor to health and well-being and so I set about designing something that could be made through other social enterprises, which could extend the social value. I set up Living Interiors, as an experiment, to develop high end products and an end to end solution through social enterprise. If I can make a success of this I can help meet the skills gap within some social enterprises in taking products to market. Those enterprises could then concentrate on what they do best to, recruit, train and provide supported work opportunities for disabled people.
Trading with other social enterprise will increase social and financial value within the sector, and in turn sustainability. With this in mind I set off designing a number of ethical products. I was inspired by the new green wall technology that was starting to spread across the globe – covering buildings with beautiful plants, renewing life in urban areas, reducing carbon emissions and attracting wildlife. With some start up support from social enterprise specialists UnLtd, I developed an ‘indoor green wall’ for the domestic market. I loved the aesthetics of the green wall and its ability to improve indoor air quality, and hoped that crafting a product entirely from reused and recycled materials, would create a guilt free consumer experience.
The supply chain
York Disabled Workers Co-operative build quality bespoke wooden furniture, and their skilled craftsmanship makes them the perfect people to hand build the wooden surrounds for the indoor green walls. The plants will be grown through Horticap, and the products and currently packaged and delivered through Paperworks, both North Yorkshire based social enterprises offering training and work experience for disabled people.
Like in any start up business there are some challenges with the resources to bulk buy and to pass the financial savings on to the customer, but there are different challenges I have found through working with social enterprise. Working through only social enterprise means going at a much slower pace, because of course all the elements of production, are also training opportunities for people. Training opportunities have to be organised and delivered, and the trainees have to have more time to understand instruction and complete the tasks.
However, the pace has been perfect, enabling me the time to think things through as I go and make changes. Working through social enterprise has also uncovered some other welcome surprises, such as people’s willingness to try new things and support your ideas, as this all creates new training opportunities for disabled people, building their skills and supporting their pathways back to work. The complex packaging design, which had to hold both the wooden surround and plants, if manufactured through commercial routes would have priced the product out of the market. Horticap, will grow any of the plants suitable for the green walls, offering very reasonable prices. It seems that with social enterprise, one good turn deserves another and people seem to be open to problem solving with a focus on social value rather than financial. A much more harmonious supply chain, with transparency, ethics and collaboration.