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Supply Chain
Protecting the Collectors:
A Case Study in Ensuring Safe, Sustainable Livelihoods for Workers in the ‘First Mile’

Many companies still shy away from responsibility for what’s happening in the first mile of their supply chains; but First Mile, along with its nonprofit and brand partners, is actively engaging with these issues — and creating positive impacts for thousands of waste collectors around the world.

At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, waste pickers were among the many in developing economies who bore the brunt of its effects. Many provide an invaluable service yet remain part of the informal economy. Many live in areas where they struggle to access basic healthcare, let alone personal protective equipment (PPE) — leaving them especially vulnerable if they continued to work as infection rates grew. Others would have had their livelihoods threatened when recycling services ground to a halt during lockdown mandates.

One initiative that has managed to navigate such challenges exceptionally well is First Mile, a partnership between Thread and Los Angeles-based nonprofit WORK. First Mile supports waste collectors in various communities across the world including Haiti, Honduras and Taiwan, enabling them to earn a dignified income while diverting plastic waste from oceans and landfills. The company also works with brand partners, enabling them to responsibly source these recycled materials for integration into their supply chains.

“Brand involvement and buy-in is critical to the success of this work,” Vivien Luk, executive director at WORK, tells Sustainable Brands™ (SB) in a recent interview. “It’s still easy for brands to shy away from responsibility for what’s happening in the first mile of their supply chains — it’s many steps removed from their suppliers, traditional audits and certifications don’t often work to uncover risks here, solutions are complex and take time.”

The companies First Mile works with, including CPI Card Group and HP, are choosing to actively engage with these issues, rather than ignoring them — which Luk says is creating positive impacts for thousands of waste collectors around the world.

In Haiti alone, First Mile and its brand partners have increased pricing for plastic material — resulting in a higher income for collectors — and invested in a local recycling facility to build capacity. This has also led to a 75 percent reduction of child labor at the country’s largest landfill in Port-au-Prince, Luk says.

Terra Grantham, VP of strategy and ESG at CPI Card Group, says the fact that First Mile is “on the ground” in Haitian collection communities brings a lot of benefit in itself. “They help ensure we have traceability of supply and that we are buying materials that are collected ethically,” she tells SB. “They also enable us to support collector communities with charitable donations such as for health challenges, housing, earthquake-relief and education. Because they are embedded in the communities, we feel confident our donations have real impact.”

When the pandemic hit, ensuring the safety and wellbeing of its collectors was First Mile’s top priority.

“We work across different countries, so every supply chain has different mandates, shutdowns and responses,” Kelsey Halling, head of partnerships at First Mile, told SB. “In addition to ensuring that collectors had access to PPE and handwashing stations, our teams conducted health and safety training so that collectors knew how to stay safe while working, and how to access medical care if needed.”

Crucially, First Mile also supported those that were unable to work during lockdowns with financial and food assistance to help compensate for any loss of income.

Asked whether these lockdowns had any significant impact on collection volumes, Halley replied: “When strict lockdowns were in place, everything was paused — collecting, recycling, transporting recycled material — but most operations have been up and running.”

She says in certain markets, there has been less material to collect; in others, volumes have held steady.

“Our collectors in Taiwan, for example, have noted a decrease in the volume of materials due to consumption habits changing. In other markets, like Haiti or Honduras, plastic volume has remained relatively consistent — and in some cases, even saw an increase — due to the amount of plastic involved in PPE and other medical and safety-related products.”

But it’s not just the effects of the pandemic that First Mile has had to cope with. Haiti is in the grip of a national security crisis, effectively gridlocked by gang violence, making the transportation of goods and people difficult. These pressures have been compounded by a major earthquake that hit the southern province of the island last year.

“I would say at this point the national security crisis in Haiti is the greatest challenge facing our network and supply chain there,” Luk says.

Despite these dangers, First Mile is progressing with its programming while continuing to prioritize the safety of its team and collection network.

“Our recycling partner, Lavergne Haiti, continues to purchase and process material; and we coordinate with their team to ensure transportation is available to our collection centers,” Halling says.

She adds that the collection network in Haiti is well-connected — this has enabled quick information-sharing to ensure people don’t find themselves in a dangerous situation. In addition, First Mile has been able to issue emergency funding to help support families who may need to shelter in place or relocate due to violence.

“We’ve also helped with the coordination of transportation and subsidizing fuel expenses to ensure that collection centers can continue to move plastic,” Halling says.

CPI Card Group and HP, which both source from Haiti, have been steadfast in their support — even when shipments have been delayed due to unrest and instability, she adds.

“Ensuring that people have a way to earn income and grow their businesses while providing the service of waste management feels more critical now than ever, and I’m really proud of the example our partners are setting by not shying away from these difficulties.”

In addition to their commitment to sourcing, both companies have continued to provide funding that underpins the First Mile model — which includes emergency response services and rebuilding efforts. From CPI’s perspective, this close level of partnership has enabled First Mile to take a more proactive approach and minimize any supply chain disruption.

“First Mile has been able to act as our eyes and ears, identify challenges as they emerged, and work with us to solve problems of supply while also focusing on keeping collectors and others in the supply chain safe through the crises,” Grantham says, adding that the relationship between both parties has strengthened as a result.

“We talk more often; and they are a key part of our effort to ensure we have adequate supply of ocean-bound plastic materials over the long term.”