One Planet Live Q&As: Repurpose with Purpose

Apr 22, 2021

JackF /

In the third of our live Q&As, corporate partnerships manager for Emmaus UK, Suzie Gordon, and visual creative and retail director of Spitalfields Crypt Trust, Leah Johnson, joined Roddy Clarke to discuss the vital work they do with local communities to restore and repurpose furniture, helping to divert it from rising landfill levels across the country. Scroll down to read the highlights and find out more...

The Panel

Suzie is the corporate partnerships manager for Emmaus UK, a charity that is working to end homelessness. Supporting more than 850 formerly homeless people, the charity provides a home for as long as it’s needed, alongside meaningful work and training. As many residents are known to have lost their self-esteem and confidence to get back on their feet, Emmaus UK gives people the space and support they need to take stock of their lies and make positive changes for the future.

London based visual creative and Retail Director of Spitalfields Crypt Trust, Leah Johnson has worked across the creative and luxury fashion industries. With a strong eye for detail and a passion for innovation and sustainable retail, Leah’s flair for styling and composition have resulted in an ongoing career, pioneering the charity retail revolution alongside freelance projects in creative direction, brand consultancy, and education.

With people buying more vintage pieces and with more antique marketplaces opening up, anyone that loves second-hand shopping should always go to charities first as they’re contributing on a wider scale. - Roddy Clarke

How did both charities begin?

Suzie: Emmaus started in France, shortly after the second world war when homelessness was a really big issue. The first Emmaus community was founded in 1949 by Abo Pierre. He was an MP, Catholic priest, and former member of the French Resistance. The first Emmaus companion came to him after a failed suicide attempt, he had just been released after 20 years in prison, only to find his family unable to cope with his return home, so he lived with Abo Pierre. He helped Abo building temporary homes for those in need. After that happened, Abo resigned as MP which meant he no longer had a salary. He began working with 18 other men to support them but realized he couldn’t pay them. He started touring the restaurants of Paris asking people for money but the men he was working with felt outraged that they were being lowered to begging so they decided to become ‘rag pickers’ which is collecting things that people no longer want and then selling them on.

Leah: Restoration Station is one of our social enterprises which was founded in 1959 in Spitalfields. Very sadly, a homeless man died on the steps of that church, so the church decided that was the last person that was going to die there in those circumstances. They opened the crypt which was a place for homeless people to come to get a bed and a meal, that’s something that we still do. Restoration Station started around 7 years ago, we have an amazing tutor called Bernard who was a previous service user, he’s a cockney geezer with the gift of the gab who can charm anybody. We ended up with so many donations that we had to open a shop. In the summer of 2017, it kind of took off in a huge way when we were involved with an artist called Yinka Ilori at the Tate Gallery. We did a big exhibition there and collaborated with a brilliant PR company called Zeeteler. The residents that live in our rehabilitation facilities come down daily and work to build their confidence and to give them something to concentrate on. Taking small steps so they can go forward to live a better life.

Through Restoration Station, you offer a restoration service if people want to bring things in and for them to donate and for you then sell on, is that correct?

Leah: Absolutely, it has changed a lot. During the lockdown, Restoration Station had to shut so we’ve taken a lot of commissions now such as antique pieces that people want to restore and things that people want to fix. We also mix it up a little bit where handles have been replaced or color schemes have changed, making pieces a little more contemporary.

I want to explore and examine the work of charities and how they play into a circular economy. Especially with the love of antiques and vintage furniture being reignited, it’s really valuable for people to understand the positive impact that they can have by sourcing furniture from charities and the impact it has by adding to a circular economy. - Roddy Clarke

This year must have been incredibly tough for Emmaus, how have you adapted over the past year?

Suzie: Homelessness has been at the forefront of everyone’s minds which has definitely helped us but on the flipside of that, our companions livelihood is based on the shops we have so finding meaningful work for them has been difficult throughout this pandemic. Keeping everyone in that upbeat frame of mind, especially when dealing with people with addiction and mental health issues has been difficult. The reason why we do the things we do is because it brings them a sense of purpose so when that goes away, it’s challenging. The financial support has been amazing, and the shops reopening has been a buzz for everyone. We are overwhelmed with the support and super happy to be back at it.

Do you get inundated with furniture or could you do with more?

Suzie: We could always do with more. We have a federated structure so all of our communities are independent, so if you do want to donate furniture, the best way to do it is to go on our website and find your local community and give them a call, they will offer a collection service and happy to accept most donations providing they’re in relatively good condition. We can reupholster and recycle most things. We pride ourselves of saving things from landfill. If you have one near you, which most people will do, give them a call and they will let you know what they can and can’t accept.

If something is damaged, are you able to restore it in house?

Suzie: Yes, providing it is salvageable and not too time consuming. Part of our upscaling programme is teaching our communities how to do things like that. They’re all taught to do PAT testing which is a really great skill to leave with. If we can’t salvage them as they are we will repurpose them as something else. If you look on our online shops, there’s so much creativity with what they do with everything.

Is there a place for people to follow and see what happens?

Suzie: Yes, they also have their own Twitter pages and if you go on our website, click onto the communities link and it will show you their social media links. We are super active and constantly sharing what have been donated. One of our main values is making sure we give out what we get back.

72% of our people - past and present - who stayed in our communities, had experienced street homelessness. We’re looking to expand and be able to support over 1,000 people in just one year. - Suzie Gordon

Do you have any specific stories where the charity has played a huge part in someones life?

Leah: Every person that goes through our doors and gets rehomed is a massive success story. People have had careers in shop fittings, maintenance and all sorts of craftsmanship jobs. They had lost all their confidence, family, and friends, so they come and rebuild this with us. There was one guy who previously worked for Chanel, he used to drink 7 bottles of wine a day, he went through our programme and has now gone back out and started his own business. He makes tables from scratch and sells them to make a living. To see someone calm a chaotic lifestyle into something far more manageable, it is really rewarding.

What would you say to encourage people to look at furniture and craft if they’re struggling with mental health themselves?

Leah: Take one little project at a time, try upcycling something to start with. Changing the handles or legs on a cabinet, just have a go. Look at what you got and see what you can make of it. Lower your expectations and enjoy the process as it will have more character than anything you can buy from the highstreet.

What does the future hold for both charities?

Leah: There are a lot of exciting things in the pipeline, we're looking at expanding our services and getting more people involved. Retail online is the future. We are also looking to expand our charity shops, and have more concept places in community shops to offer more than the internet can.

Suzie: So much. A lot of exciting partnerships which I can’t mention just yet. We're focusing on agricultural aspects like grow your own; we want to increase what we do so we can expand.

What advice do you have for people wanting to start a charity?

Suzie: Do a lot of research, making sure you have something different than the other people around you. Look at local independent funding and trusts where you can apply for funds. I would recommend having a mentor, someone who has worked in a start-up.

Most of the work is in the preparation of the product. Don’t give up on the sanding, power through! - Leah Johnson

Audience Q&A

How can I donate furniture to you?

Suzie: If you do want to donate furniture, the best way to do it is to go on our website and find your local community and give them a call, you can then arrange collection or delivery.

Leah: We have the same process as Emmaus, we now have a new van that was kindly donated to us so you can either deliver or we can collect. You can contact the individual charity shop, the numbers can be found on our website, or simply pop in.

How important is it for people to think vintage and secondhand first?

Suzie: The sustainability factor is so important. The cheapest way for you to upgrade your furniture is to recycle, repurpose, donate and rebuy pieces. Our charity will repurpose, we don’t just recycle. If we can’t do what it's supposed to do, we’ll make it do something else. It’s the main way that our communities make a living and get an allowance. The last year has made us realize how important it is for them to have our shops.

Do you have any advice on eco-friendly materials?

Roddy: With eco-friendly materials, especially when finishing wood, try things such as bees wax, naturals materials are always better. I know within the charity sector it is more about saving the item from landfill and ensuring it can be reused.

Any paint brand suggestions?

Roddy: There's a great company called Graphenstone which takes carbon out of the air and it’s produced very sustainably.

What items would you say no to?

Suzie: Anything that will be hard to sell, I guess. Each of our communities have different policies so it's always best to check what they will and won't accept. In general, we take TVs, kettles, microwaves, sofas, and chairs.

Recycle in Style

In the last of our live Q&As on Wednesday 28th April at 5pm BST on Instagram @amaraliving, Roddy joins textile designer and craft influencer Zeena Shah (@heartzeena), alongside upcycling duo @patience_and_gough, to look at the fun and playfulness of upcycling and DIY, and how it brings happiness to the home.

Miss out on the talk? Don’t worry. You can catch up on our Instagram @amaraliving.