October 25th, 2023
Green Connect run an award-winning permaculture farm and op shops selling secondhand goods in the Illawarra region.
The group also provides zero-waste services at events and for businesses looking to reduce waste to landfill, along with workforce solutions (labour hire) for businesses and councils.
Through their work, Green Connect empower individuals from marginalised groups facing barriers to employment by creating jobs and training opportunities.
In 2022, they grew and distributed around 55,000 kgs of fair food and kept 160 tonnes of waste from going to landfill.
Hidden away in a small community in Wollongong, New South Wales, is the not-for-profit social enterprise Green Connect, working to empower young people, refugees and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in work that helps their community and the wider environment.
Green Connect is helping to create jobs and employment pathways for marginalised groups on their serene 11-acre permaculture farm through projects involving growing ‘fair food’ as well as repurposing old goods in their op shops and providing zero waste services.
We sat down with Green Connect’s General Manager Robert Servine to talk about how they are empowering Wollongong’s community to create a just and inclusive circular economy.
“Green Connect runs a global award-winning permaculture farm and op shops, provides zero waste services at events, and workforce solutions to businesses and councils. Through our work we provide training and support so our team can use employment experience as a springboard to sustainable and fulfilling jobs and careers.”
“We nurture a supportive and inclusive environment where marginalised individuals can strengthen their capacity. We simultaneously address issues related to unsustainable food production and waste management. The heart of our work lies in our organic urban farm, where we grow fair food, provide training, educate the community and welcome volunteers.”
”Sustainability has been my passion for years. A circular economy is sustainable, while the current economy based on continual growth is not sustainable. For Green Connect, this aligns with our mission to empower individuals facing barriers to employment, reduce waste and grow food in sustainable ways. We recognised that traditional business practices were not effectively addressing these challenges, and a circular approach provided a more sustainable and inclusive solution. Our circular approach is centered on waste reduction, resource efficiency, reuse and community engagement.”
“Green Connect integrates circularity into our operations by:
“What sets us apart is our holistic approach to circularity. We not only reduce waste but also address social issues by providing employment and training opportunities to marginalised groups. Our integrated model combines horticulture, waste management, and retail, creating a comprehensive circular solution. We have created a well-regarded community hub within the Illawarra region and open our doors to visitors, families, businesses and anyone who is interested in learning more and pursuing a more sustainable way of living.”
We recognised that traditional business practices were not effectively addressing these challenges, and a circular approach provided a more sustainable and inclusive solution. Our circular approach is centered on waste reduction, resource efficiency, reuse and community engagement.
“Our journey began by identifying the pressing issues in our community, such as unemployment and waste management. We needed expertise in waste management, horticulture and social support and partnered with experts in these areas and trained our staff to develop the necessary skills. Engaging with stakeholders was and continues to be essential, as achieving this level of change for the world requires many hands from many different people. We connected with local businesses, government agencies, and the community to build a network of support.”
“Green Connect has implemented a range of initiatives, including waste reduction programs, organic farming, and workforce development. We are also putting in systems that will allow for growth since there are so many more opportunities for social enterprises that come up as businesses and the public become more aware of the issues with a business-as-usual approach and move toward a circular economy.”
“Over the years, we faced several challenges in terms of resource availability, funding and community engagement. We addressed these by seeking grants and promoting our mission to the community. Perhaps our biggest barrier has been the additional costs associated with being a social enterprise and trying to compete with normal businesses that don’t have these expenses. The reality is that doing what we do, in the way that we do, costs more. We employ people with complex social issues to produce quality outcomes. We call on our customers and supporters to recognise the social value of what we do over and above the lowest price they can find out on the internet.”
“The key is to persevere and build a strong network of support. Circular initiatives often require time and effort to gain momentum, but the positive impact on the community is worth it. And there needs to be a focus on economic sustainability as well. We can’t just focus on good causes at the expense of business - if it’s not financially sustainable it’s not sustainable.”
“Our most significant achievement has been reducing waste to landfill by a substantial percentage, while simultaneously providing employment opportunities for marginalised groups, and creating a sustainable local food system. Last year, we grew and distributed 55,000 kgs of fair food. We were also delighted to have been awarded the Commonwealth Secretary-General’s Innovation for Sustainable Development Award for our work in this space – the only Australian winner and one of just 15 around the world.”
“We've witnessed social benefits in terms of employment and community engagement, environmental benefits through reduced waste, and economic benefits by creating a self-sustaining social enterprise. We are seeing more opportunities coming our way, with large companies like Mirvac, Ventia, Select Civit and others reaching out to us to work together. We were also accepted as one of four social enterprises across Australia accepted into the Supplier Development Program with Mirvac and Social Traders.”
“In the future, Green Connect aims to expand its impact by reaching more marginalised individuals, further reducing waste, and promoting sustainable, local food systems on a larger scale. We are scaling our reach into Western Sydney to support even more people there, and to raise the profile of doing business in a sustainable way.”
"We encourage readers to explore the possibilities of the circular economy in their own communities and in their everyday life and work. Start by identifying local challenges and work together to create inclusive, sustainable solutions. Whenever you buy something, think about its journey – what resources have gone into creating it, and how it will be disposed of after the end of its useful life. Become an ambassador for sustainable living – and show your care for this world that we have been gifted.
Green Connect is proof that positive change is possible, and we invite you to join us in this journey towards a circular and thriving future.”