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Emma Saunders, founder and owner of The Green Collective with on of the ENCORE bags made using child car seat straps and offcuts from bouncy castles and inflatable obstacles courses.

The Green Collective, in Nelson, is one of a new breed of businesses putting sustainability at the heart of its thinking, planning and doing. We chatted to founder Emma Saunders during the COVID-19 lockdown to find out more about her work and drive for a sustainable world.

Tell us about The Green Collective and the bags you make using straps from the SeatSmart programme.

All our products follow the simple concept of being as sustainable as possible from start to finish.  We reuse our offcuts, trimmed threads and more.

For the ENCORE bags, I went a step further and looked at others’ manufacturing waste. I often drive past skips and pull over to investigate, build a relationship with the manager and see what new product could emerge.

That is how our ENCORE bags came about. Through initially collecting waste from three main local businesses, I found enough consistent waste material to make a bag. I then worked with Russell O-Donnell at Baby on The Move Nelson, collecting seatbelts from expired child car seats from their rental range.

With the growing nationwide SeatSmart programme, I was then able to tap into the wider recycling collection point of expired straps. The rest of the bag is made using offcuts from bouncy castles and inflatable obstacle courses.

Why did you decide to start using the straps?

Despite being expired, many of the straps have a lot of life remaining. Our bags are strong – the fabric offcuts can hold an incredibly heavy load so I was looking for a strap material that could match the strength I was looking for.

I receive the straps in the condition they were handed in. They can be smelly and covered in all the gunk babies can coat them in. Others, like the anchor straps, have been behind the child, or unused for cars without seat anchor bolts. All the straps are washed, soaked, scrubbed, washed and sun dried, until they look like new.

The COVID-19 lockdown has affected everyone, how has it impacted your business and how are you working through it?

I am not an essential business, so any orders received during lockdown have been patiently waiting until Level 3 to be sent out (with a bonus thank you gift coming!). Many of our stockists are the same, and those with retail stores have been closed for the last month.

Without those wholesale orders coming in our business sales have dropped by about 80%. I am hopeful that once everyone is up and running again the orders will resume as stock moves.

You have three young children at home (a 9, 7 and 2-year old). How are you working around caring for them?

Emma, who is also a Pilates instructor, with her two eldest sons keeping fit during lockdown.

Yes, three boys! It is a busy, lively household. My husband is an essential worker, so he is either on site at work or we have to be quiet for his video conferences. The sunny weather has been our saviour for getting outside or going out for short walks. Thank goodness we don’t live in an apartment so there is some space for them to run around.

I’ve adjusted my workload to helping other businesses who are feeling the economic strain of the lockdown more than me. I have always had flexibility in my home-based job (product is in our storeroom) so I’m just working incredibly flexible hours, and mastering the art of being productive in five-minute windows!

It’s a challenging time, but there are rewards with every challenge. What have been some of the positives for you?

I agree. We currently have a bench of things simmering, soaking, rising, curing and it smells amazing. There is extra home time to observe and nurse all our projects along. With a busy family, I have not had the additional time to ‘Marie Kondo’ our home, but our focus has been on fun family projects.

Learning and sending Morse code messages across the valley to friends, science experiments everywhere, dancing, Pilates videos, time to get bored and follow ant trails.

With the social and economic impact of COVID-19 do you foresee more focus on reuse and recycling?

Yes, I agree regarding more focus but also awareness of any limitations too. There is a growing number of shared community tool libraries and sheds, and repair centres helping people fix rather than throw broken items away from clothing to appliances.

This is fantastic and will help people see the value in all items. Nationwide, we are now seeing the repercussions of our previous recycling system sending a portion overseas. Locally in Nelson from 1 July we will have a much-reduced street plastic recycling collection, limited to plastic waste types 1, 2, and 5 only.

Focus will now need to shift even more onto the manufacturer’s choice of packaging materials – using sustainable options, and the consumer spending their money on the companies who have.

How did The Green Collective come about? 

Back in 2014, we identified a lack of reusable bag options for shopping and we began researching, testing and then making locally our first product, Goodie Bags. Our first sale was at the infamous Nelson Saturday Market and we sold out!

You don’t just make trendy bags from recycled material though?

We have seven products now, including our compostable SPRUCE dish cloth, organic cotton Loot Bags, absorbent Tea Towels (yes, they actually work!) and our two DIY KITS.

Post this lockdown I am keen to explore manufacturing waste again to create more product lines in a similar process to the ENCORE bag. If any businesses want to chat, I’d be happy to hear from them.

You keep a record of the positive impact The Green Collective has had (plastic bags kept out of circulation etc). Tell us a bit more about this.

Since 2014 we have taken over 5,801,718 single use plastic bags out of circulation, reduced over 60,000 plastic sponges going to landfill and no more microplastic particles going down the plug hole when doing the dishes.

We’ve repurposed the equivalent of two full 4msq skips into our ENCORE bags. It’s certainly motivating to look back and reflect on these numbers. I look forward to seeing what the future holds for us, and what else we can save with our eco products.

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