Globechain's May-Al Karooni: 'Building corporate with a conscience'

Written by: Jo Gallacher | Published:
Globechain founder and CEO May Al-Karooni

Most of you reading this will remember a time before online marketplaces.

Where society’s concerns over Amazon referred to deforestation in South America and Uber was restricted to the German language.

Like most ideas, the simple ones are most often the best. Connecting people who want an item or service with the very people who can provide this seems so obvious it needn’t have been thought up at all.

Customers in their millions across the globe are now using these markets to find a range of services including hotels, taxis and beauty appointments. It was only a matter of time before the same system was utilised within the waste industry.

Globechain is a British reuse marketplace, which connects corporates with charities and encourages the redistribution of unwanted items. Items are given for free by Globechain members who pay to use the website, and in return are given social impact data on the items donated plus, of course, avoid paying disposal or waste collection fees.

Founded by May Al-Karooni six years ago, Globechain now works with over 10,000 members across the retail, medical and construction industries and has so far diverted more than 5.1 million kilos from landfill. As well as the obvious environmental impact of the reuse network, donations have created savings of £1.5m for charities and helped over 14,000 communities within the UK.

Humble beginnings

This circular economy empire was built with just £800, pure resistance and mental strength, according to Al-Karooni. She says: “I used to work for an investment bank and they were moving across the road. They binned all the furniture and bought new versions as it cost them more to move it, which for me was commercial madness. So I thought, what if I could save you some money and give it back? Why has no-one digitised waste and put it online?”

Al-Karooni then worked for a year to design and test Globechain, with one of the first retailers coming on board identifying bespoke and expensive fixtures and fittings as the main items it struggled to dispose of. “At first, I had to manually build the network up, so I would call charities in an area and ask them if they were interested in the items, which I’d then get them to pick up.

“We did it for free the first year to test, as I wanted to find how much scope it had, where it would go and whether companies would pay to use the service. Once I realised it was saving them more money than I thought, items began to go in 24 hours as the demand was really high.”

Al-Karooni then began to develop a tracking system which monitored where the materials were donated to and their social impact. This uses ESG sustainable impact monitoring, which measures environment, social and governance.

The data breaks down kilos diverted plus who the recipients are and what the items were used for. In some areas, this can also lead to indirect impacts through grant funding application forms and upskilling employees from reuse workshops.

The corporates that Globechain works with often yield lots of power and governance, so arguably the marketplace is granting them even more jurisdiction to dictate which organisation is deserved of their charity. Does this raise any ethical issues for Al-Karooni?

She says: “You have to give a bit of control to the companies in that way as one of the issues they’ve had in the past was brand imaging. They do want to change, but you’ve got to gradually move these companies and help them. Internally they want to do the right thing, but they’re stuck with red tape.”

How future businesses will be built

Despite the many benefits Globechain can bring to both business and charity, Al-Karooni doesn’t view it as a social business. Instead, she refers to her company as corporate with a conscience.

“The next generation are going to be focused on commercial because they have to be, I don’t think there is going to be this distinction between charities and companies partnering up – it’ll just be part of the foundation of how a business is built.”

In fact, Al-Karooni argues misinterpretation of the business can sometimes be a negative for its profitability. She continues: “For me it was about how I can create something that people will use, and which benefits and motivates them in a particular way. The by-product is the environmental bonus.”

When Globechain started, the reuse market was a very different beast and Al-Karooni as a result experienced lots of criticism of the circular economy model. “People would tell me that it wasn’t a real business, but for me failure wasn’t an option. Now the circular economy market is worth £5 trillion. We have challenges every day because we’re leading into the unknown and need to be confident and believe in what we’re doing.”

Globechain has since featured in Forbes magazine as a ‘Start-up to watch in 2019’ and is also mentored by eBay. As a result, the company expanded into Germany last year, adding to its network in France, Spain and The Netherlands. It is also growing in the US, which Al-Karooni describes as a ‘global yet local’ service.

Charities signed up to the marketplace also reflect this global outlook. For example, many African charities have received sizeable donations due to legal variance. Where UK corporations are not allowed to take on medical equipment, such as crutches, patient beds and saline solution, African charities have no such guidance and can therefore use the equipment to create more medical infrastructure.

Al-Karooni adds: “It’s not waste, it’s an asset and could be someone’s life going forward. It’s been amazing to see a little idea take up, and we do often forget as business people the impact it can make. We’re stopping medical equipment from being incinerated and instead kitting a hospital out.”

Circular future

As for future challenges, Al-Karooni is deciding to focus on the positives Brexit could bring to Globechain, despite widespread market criticism from other areas of the sector. “I do have concerns as most of my team are European, plus we’re going to go into Europe; it’s how that is going to affect legislation and policy on reuse. But we are a marketplace so we don’t have assets – therefore we are scalable.”

She is also equally optimistic about the potential of working with waste companies rather than viewing them as competition. She says: “There is some really clever technology in the recycling world and people are moving away from the classic recycling model. Now we’re seeing waste companies come to us and ask us for our data because it’s not the same as theirs, so it’ll be interesting to see how they can change their models.

“There’s also some amazing Waste to Energy companies, but for them to take on smaller volumes, it’s much more of a challenge. So we are interested to see where we could partner up or own something ourselves. We aim high, but our members are also getting more sophisticated. They will certainly change as the circular economy advances.”

Globechain represents a sea change in new enterprises set to disrupt the traditional waste market, and is one of a growing number of businesses moving into the circular economy field. It is now up to the traditional market behemoths within the market to adapt their business models and begin to offer new services to their clients, learning from those who are utilising digital platforms to boost their offerings.

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