Published 1 year ago.
About a 5 minute read.
Image: 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
The companies First Mile works with, including CPI Card
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.
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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
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
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
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
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,”
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
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.”
Published Jun 27, 2022 8am EDT / 5am PDT / 1pm BST / 2pm CEST
Maxine Perella is an environmental journalist working in the field of corporate sustainability, circular economy and resource risk.