United Kingdom: GlassEco, case study
GlassEco is a small British company in the non-metallic sector, recycling various types of glass into worktops used for bathroom and kitchen surfaces and other applications. The company also produces tiles, floorings, moulded sinks and baths. The company is a green start-up with its own developed and patented recycling technology. The company initially had four employees, but gradually that has risen to 30. The company employs workers with entry level skills and the core team of experts trains them. The case study was prepared between January and May 2012.
GlassEco was established in 2005 and is located in Crawley, West Sussex, on the southern edge of London. The company is a small enterprise with 20 employees (at times rising to 30), including between four and five people working as administrative staff. The major economic activity of GlassEco is the manufacture of solid surface worktops for bathrooms, kitchens, reception desks and other surfaces, made entirely from recycled materials, primarily post-use consumer glass. The company sources and processes its own aggregate. The resulting products have unusual design features, are stain resistant and have tried and tested internal strength. There are no secondary activities the company is engaged in.
The sub-sector of manufacturing worktops and other related products from recycled glass is very small in Europe. GlassEco names as their direct competitors only one other UK company producing on a much smaller scale, and the Spanish facility of a large international worktop producer. The company’s primary competition comes from more traditional materials, granite and marble along with other types of stone.
The company has been selected as an interesting example of a unique and innovative start-up green company with its own green technology. The experiences of the company give a valuable perspective on how small innovative green businesses develop their human resource solutions, in particular a skills development model that involves the creation of a core team of internal experts who provide blue-collar workers with skills and advice as needed.
Drivers and motivations
In common with many other green start-up companies, the desire of the founders to create a business which would be both profitable and environmentally responsible was the key motivation in starting GlassEco. As the founders came from the recycling industry, they decided to develop a technology in which the ‘where possible’ approach taken by other manufacturers would be replaced by sourcing the vast majority of raw materials from recycling processes.
The key driver was the invention in 2003 of the technology the company now uses. It is quite basic (see section C), but its particularities have been protected as an intellectual property.
Also in common with other green start-ups, there was no pressure on the company from customers, the community or regulatory frameworks since this was a new business rather than an old one being restructured. The practice was developed entirely as a search for market opportunities for a new product with a low environmental footprint and exceptional, flexible design.
The fact that the raw materials are cheaper than those used by competitors does not create any significant cost advantages because of the higher costs of production.
The economic and financial crisis has made the company search for new markets, shifting its focus from Europe to the Americas, but the management of the company is optimistic about its future performance.
Green business practices
The idea to engage in this type of business was proposed by the current director of the company, who is also one of the owners. As mentioned previously, the development of the technology was gradual. The founders of the company experimented to develop the best way to produce utility worktops made of as much recycled material as possible.
The various types of waste glass, ranging from bottles and jars to cathode ray tube glass from old television sets and computer monitors, is collected by the company in the UK and preferably in London, to minimise transportation costs and the carbon footprint of the final product. It is then transformed through a series of steps into worktops used for various domestic and commercial applications.
The waste glass is first of all crushed into small particles, which are then bound together in a solvent-free epoxy resin to create a surface similar in appearance and behaviour to granite. The mixture of glass and resin is moulded into frames to produce differently shaped sheets and surfaces may also be bent to produce curves. Finally, the product is calibrated and polished.
The final products may consist of as much as 93% of recycled materials, while having favourable performance in terms of durability, staining and heat-resistance compared to non-recycled alternatives.
The products of GlassEco have a virtually non-existent carbon footprint. The company has won a National Recycling Award for its commitment to sustainability.
A square metre of the product contains the equivalent of 190 glass bottles. Various other waste, including discarded shells (from seafood restaurants), waste stone and broken ceramic, may be added later to achieve different finishes. The peculiar design feature which separates a range of GlassEco’s products from traditional surfaces is the possibility of under-lighting them.
GlassEco was offered the opportunity to provide worktops for bathrooms in the Olympic Village of the 2012 London Olympic Games. The offer came through an external company which had used GlassEco’s services previously. Other past clients include the BBC, Deutsche Bank, Transport for London and other well-known national and international organisations.
The company also has other environmentally sustainable practices in place, such as water recycling (the same water is used up to three times), minimum energy use, a waste policy and the heating of its premises by biomass.
Anticipation and management of the impact of green change on quantity and quality of jobs
Impact on quantity of jobs
Initially the company was started with four employees, who were heavily involved in the development of the recycling technology and establishment of the enterprise itself. These first employees became experts in the working methods of the company and have built an in-depth knowledge of its functioning, including the manufacturing process, the sales process, management of human resources and overall situation in the market.
In recent years, the number of workers employed by the company has fluctuated between 20 and 30. At the moment, there are 20 employees in total in the company, including the director, administrator, sales managers, designer, templaters (responsible for visiting the homes of clients, taking measurements, and preparing blueprints), and a range of blue-collar workers (responsible for different phases of the manufacture process, such as crushing the glass, constructing moulding frames, moulding, polishing).
The recruitment process is done in the usual way for small enterprises, mainly through advertisements and personal recommendations. The company employs new staff ad hoc, based on its immediate labour force needs. Long-term skill needs are hard to predict and the company does not use sophisticated methods to anticipate demand for new employees.
Impact on quality of jobs
As the company’s type of activity is very rare in the UK and Europe, the company has difficulty in finding staff with suitable skills. The company’s approach is therefore to train new employees through its own internal training process.
For the same reason (the uniqueness of the activities and the fact that the technology has been developed by this one company) it isn’t possible to create external training courses. The best possible know-how is already available within the company and it cannot be matched by external experts.
There are two key approaches to internal skills development. In cases where additional workers are needed for jobs already being done, or where departing employees are to be replaced by others, training is provided by established and trained employees. Where this is not possible, training is done by core staff who have overall knowledge of the manufacturing process.
This cluster of core experts is also responsible for supplementing the skills of blue-collar workers with continuing support on any issues that arise.
Asalready explained, there are many types of employees in GlassEco, and the workers of every type need to learn different skills before they start their daily work.
- Designers and sales managers need detailed knowledge of the technology applied by the company and its limitations, so that potential clients can be offered both the best solutions and also the most feasible.
- Templaters need in-depth knowledge of what has to be taken into account while taking measurements, and must be skilled in developing and making blueprints.
- Manufacturers of moulding frames need the ability to read the blueprint (the blueprints show the frames upside-down) and manufacture the frames accordingly.
- Crushers of glass need knowledge about the tools and machinery which can be used to crush different types of collected glass – the technology differs for crushing thin or thick glass and bottles.
- Moulders calculate the volumes of resin and glass needed and need to understand moulding techniques.
- Polishers need knowledge about the machinery, settings, speeds and types of abrasives to be used at different stages of the process.
One worker, who has been with the company for about half a year and is responsible for the moulding process, confirmed that her training in how to calculate the volume of the moulded mass and the amount of the resin and the glass to be used was given to her by an employee who has now left the company. She reports that she was fully ready to take over the work within about two weeks of starting her job. Further tasks allotted to her required only minimal additional learning – the set of skills she needs has not changed significantly.
There were no reported influences of green business practice on the other working conditions of the employees, such as career and employment security, health and well-being, and work-life balance. The standards set by national legislation are observed and there are no significant additional issues.
Collaboration in anticipating and managing green change
Being a unique company, GlassEco does not collaborate with social partners and/or public authorities on issues such as the anticipation and management of green change, or its impact on the skills and other working conditions of employees.
While the lack of collaboration with trade unions and employer organisations is understandable due to the small size of the company, the management expressed disappointment at the lack of collaborative opportunities with public actors. In their opinion, national and European public authorities could do more in supporting green change in business by offering ‘green’ companies such as theirs assistance with additional funding, perhaps through provision of direct financing measures or offering guidance on opportunities to support green products. Tax breaks for customers buying sustainable products could also be offered, and public institutions could be encouraged to procure green products.
The key problem in anticipating the skills needs of the company is the difficulty in predicting production demand. The recent economic and financial crisis has harmed the company’s performance and motivated it to start widening the geographical focus of its marketing beyond Europe.
Conclusions and recommendations
The analysed company is a small green start-up enterprise with a unique technology developed by its founders. A number of conclusions and recommendations can be drawn from GlassEco’s experience:
- Unique green companies with their own technology may experience difficulties in obtaining employees with the necessary skills, since there is no supply of such skills on the labour market.
- The solution to this issue is to provide internal training to newly hired employees. This training may be provided either by other employees doing the same function at the same level or by highly-skilled employees who are experts in the manufacturing process.
- It is beneficial for a company to have a core team of experts who have in-depth knowledge about the overall production process, sales, human resource management and the situation in the market. Such experts may assist workers at any time when they have questions or meet difficulties or skill shortages in doing their tasks.
- While it is important for small companies to secure the support of public authorities, this should not be counted on, as such support may prove to be very limited.
- The skills needed in small companies are always highly dependent on the performance of the company. The anticipation of such skills may prove to be difficult given the changing demand for company’s products, especially in the times of economic hardship. The search for new markets (geographically) may be one solution to the problem of these fluctuations and in the numbers of staff needed. In the meanwhile, the development of transferable skills among the employees could help the companies increase the adaptability of their workforce to ever-changing economic and working conditions.