Kelly Freeman, Sustainability Director at Goodwill Industries of Central Texas, is a self-proclaimed “recycling/waste reduction geek since birth.” So, she is a natural fit with Goodwill’s goal of helping people find lifelong connections to meaningful work. Freeman is committed to helping the 28-store Goodwill of Central Texas network best serve its 15-county community by squeezing every penny out of every material it receives by finding secondary reuse markets. The concept of reuse at Goodwill Central Texas isn’t just a practice — it’s a companywide obligation. “Currently, we’re able to divert about 75% of what isn’t sold in [Goodwill of Central Texas’] retail stores, and we employ about 2,000 people,” Freeman says. “We want to make it as convenient as possible for our donors to find us and bring us their gently used goods.”
JOHN SHEGERIAN: Welcome back to Green is Good, and we’re so honored and excited to have on the line with us Kelly Freeman. She’s the Sustainability Director for Goodwill Industries of Central Texas. Welcome to Green is Good, Kelly.
KELLY FREEMAN: Thank you! Glad to be here.
JOHN SHEGERIAN: Well, so great to have you on. We’ve never had the honor and the pleasure of having Goodwill Industries on the show, so this is a first for us today but it makes so much sense but before we get to talking about all the great things happening at Goodwill Industries, can you tell us a little bit about Kelly Freeman? Tell us about your journey, Kelly, and how’d you end up here at Goodwill Industries in Central Texas?
KELLY FREEMAN: Sure! Well, I really have been a recycling/waste reduction geek since I was born honestly, and even before then, my family has been in that business for several generations. My great grandfather was Sanitation Supervisor in New Orleans and introduced the first compacting trash trucks there so I’m proud of that legacy and then my mom also had her own environmental consulting business focusing on helping small communities build recycling and waste reduction programs. Actually, I ended up starting out working out with her and just have been sort of dedicated to the field forever and just before I came here to Goodwill, I primarily worked with small local governments in helping them to identify funding and start waste reduction cleanup and recycling programs for their systems.
JOHN SHEGERIAN: That is great, so this is in your DNA then.
KELLY FREEMAN: Yeah, it totally is.
JOHN SHEGERIAN: This is great, so talk a little bit about how many years ago did you join Goodwill Industries?
KELLY FREEMAN: I actually have only been here just about a year, but I’ve been working with Goodwill sort of from the outside for many years in supporting their environmental programs.
JOHN SHEGERIAN: You know, it’s so interesting, Kelly. Ten years ago there was no chief sustainability officers at big companies. There was no sustainability directors at NGOs and now this has become a very common title.
KELLY FREEMAN: Absolutely, and even here at Goodwill Central Texas, it’s a relatively new title as well going back just a few years. We have had our environmental businesses services division for much longer than that, maybe about 10 years since we started our computer recycling program, but it’s new for us, too.
JOHN SHEGERIAN: At every company and at every nonprofit, it means something different. When you took this opportunity over at Goodwill, what did it mean? What was the call to action for the title of Sustainability Director over at Goodwill?
KELLY FREEMAN: Well, for Goodwill specifically, our primary goal is first to help people find lifelong connections to meaningful work and in order to do that, we have to maximize the value of the donations that we receive so to us, that sustainability is by maximize the value of the donations that we receive and throwing them away because we can’t sell them isn’t going to do that so sustainability has to mean squeezing that last little penny of value out of that material by finding secondary reuse markets, recycling, whatever it is that we can do to squeeze the last little bit of value out of those so that our entire organization is sustainable in an environmental sense of course but also just in a sense of helping our community by getting the most we can out of donations.
JOHN SHEGERIAN: Got it, and I’m on your website now and for our listeners out there that want to follow along, it’s a great website. I gotta tell you. It’s www.austingoodwill.org. It’s a beautiful website. Talk a little bit about the stores. I’ve grown up in different parts of the United States and Goodwill is an iconic brand. Talk a little bit about how many retail stores you have in the central Texas area that are under your umbrella.
KELLY FREEMAN: Sure! So here in central Texas, we have 28 retail stores. We cover a 15-county area around Austin, and so there’s 28 stores in our region. We also then have a computer store, our computer works store where we sell refurbished computers, and also our outlet store, which is a super deep discount Goodwill store, which is awesome to go shop there. Across the country, there are 165 Goodwill regions similar to ours and then also, 13 Goodwill organizations in other countries around the world so we’re truly a global organization.
JOHN SHEGERIAN: Wow, and 28 retail stores so you are the Sustainability Director at those 28 retail stores so talk a little bit about that’s 15 counties. That’s a lot of territory to cover, huh?
KELLY FREEMAN: Absolutely, and the way that we work is anything that we are unable to sell or isn’t suitable for sale at our retail stores comes back to a central location here where I’m located and when it comes here, we first give the public an opportunity to buy it at a deeply discounted rate. Our outlet store actually sells merchandise at $1.39 a pound so it’s Black Friday in there every day. It’s great bargains and then if we’re unable to sell it there, it goes into our recycling and salvage operation so here at our central facility, we accept all of that material from 28 stores that they’re unable to sell and process through. By doing that, not only are we able to divert from landfill about 75% of what isn’t sold in the retail store. We’re also able to create close to 100 jobs here at our facility.
JOHN SHEGERIAN: At that facility that you work out of?
KELLY FREEMAN: Yes, and overall, Goodwill Central Texas employees over 2,000 people.
JOHN SHEGERIAN: So, you’re one of the largest employers in Central Texas, I take it?
KELLY FREEMAN: We absolutely are, yes.
JOHN SHEGERIAN: That is just amazing so talk a little bit about the donations that are received. How does this really work? Because I love your brand but I don’t even understand how are donations made? Our listeners out there that want to be involved, want to push your mission forward, how do they engage?
KELLY FREEMAN: Sure, so we accept donations, of course, at all of our Goodwill stores all across the country and, of course, here in Goodwill Central Texas as well so we want to make it as convenient as possible for our donors to find us and to bring us their gently used goods so even in addition to our retail stores, we also have a number of attended donation sites across the region because we really want to make it easy and convenient for people to donate to us. Once we receive those donations, then they are brought to the retail stores and our folks there in our production rooms at the retail stores go through those and they price and sort and hang and then put those items out on the floor for sale.
JOHN SHEGERIAN: Got it, got it, got it, and then in terms of then the money that’s earned from all these donations, how does that support your mission and what is the general mission of Goodwill Industries overall, the umbrella, and then Goodwill Industries Central Texas, of course?
KELLY FREEMAN: Sure, so the mission of Goodwill overall is to help people become self-supporting. We really believe that having a connection to work and being able to support one’s self is the key to the health of your family, your own health, the health of the community, and really helps to strengthen the fabric of the community when people have meaningful work. That connection to work, we feel, is so important and so for Goodwill Central Texas, our primary mission is to focus on providing job placement support, job placement services, job training, other intensive services, counseling, whatever someone needs in order to be able to make that lifelong connection to meaningful work so our focus particularly is on those who have barriers to employment and so the reason we focus there is because there are certain groups of folks who have a much higher unemployment rate than the general population and so those groups that you’re looking at are people who, whatever their barrier is, whether it is an ex offender status, whether it’s a lack of education, whether it’s some sort of disability or a background of poverty, single parenthood, whatever those issues may be that make it difficult for them to find connections to work, our job is to take the money that we earn from foundations from the public and put those directly into services to help those people find work.
JOHN SHEGERIAN: So, it’s typically folks in society that have historically been marginalized for whatever reason or have, like you said, a higher unemployment ratio than just the general public at large? That’s so interesting and I’m on your website and again, for our listeners out there, it’s really, really a great website. It’s AustinGoodwill.org and it has so much information on it in terms of your services so under your services, you have programs for adults, youth, commercial services, even environmental business. Can you explain a little bit about this? Because this is something interesting that Goodwill got a lot of visibility for over the last years in terms of what you’re doing to help the environment and since it’s Green is Good, not only do you win because we have good going on together but also you’re a very green organization. Can you explain all the green things that you have going on?
KELLY FREEMAN: Absolutely, so through our environmental business services, we were able to divert 75%, again, of the material that we were not able to sell directly through our retail stores last year but it’s amazing the amount of material. Last year, we diverted over 29 million pounds from landfills just through our organization and we operate 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. 362 days a year, and every hour we’re open, we divert 2 tons from the landfill or more, so it’s very fast moving and as we’ve implemented these programs, its a great environmental case but it’s also a great business case. One of the things that we track is our trash costs compared to retail sales and just over the past five years, we were able to reduce our trash costs to retail sales by over half just by implementing the recycling measures that we’ve put into place so really, not only does it generate revenue for us, it creates a large number of jobs, but it also reduces our overall expenses so it’s just a win-win-win all the way around for us.
JOHN SHEGERIAN: And, it doesn’t go beyond me also that you are based in the Austin area, right?
KELLY FREEMAN: Yes.
JOHN SHEGERIAN: And, so is one of our great iconic brands from the United States, Dell, and you partnered with them, I want to say 10 years ago or so or somewhere around 10 years ago, and you created a great computer recycling program also where you do some work in that area also. Do you want to share a little bit about how that works?
KELLY FREEMAN: Absolutely. We’re so proud of that program and that partnership. That’s the Reconnect Partnership and it did start about 10 years ago here in Austin through a partnership with Dell and what we do is we accept donations of computers at our retail stores or any of our donation centers and those go to a centralized location where we do, first and importantly, which I know this is a concern to a lot of folks, we do data construction on any data-containing devices to Department of Defense standards so anyone who donates a computer to any of our stores doesn’t have to worry that their data is going to be compromised. We then sort through those materials and we identify those computers or computer components that are suitable for resale or which can be refurbished for resale. This is another way that we create additional jobs and if they’re not suitable for resale, then we partner with Dell and a third party environmental partner who then makes sure that anything that is not suitable for resale is responsibly recycled so that’s been a very successful program and now after it started here in Austin, has been duplicated I think almost at 30 Goodwill organizations across the country and more all the time.
JOHN SHEGERIAN: That’s just awesome so again, part of Goodwill has a huge environmental and therefore, why they bring on someone like you to be sustainability director, you have a huge history in recycling and environmental and this just fits perfectly with their mission and how they operate.
KELLY FREEMAN: Yes.
JOHN SHEGERIAN: So let’s talk a little bit about other stuff. What happens to the donations that aren’t sold at retail stores? How does that work?
KELLY FREEMAN: They come to our central location and what we do is we sort them into categories for either resale or recycling. Our primary preference, just like the EPA Waste Hierarchy, is to find reuse options for our materials so that’s the first thing we’ll do. Someone may not necessarily want to come in and just wait around all day to find a whole bunch of purses so what we’ll do is we’ll aggregate together half a truckload of purses and then we can find a market for those so that’s a big part of what we do that we call our salvage operations is finding secondary resale markets for those materials and it’s another way too that we’re able to create sort of downstream jobs. We really focus on resale of our materials to buyers who are located close to where we are, one, to reduce that carbon footprint of shipping things but also to create additional jobs close to home. We always visit our resale partner operations to ensure that they’re operating in an environmentally sound manner and treating their employees properly so we’re very picky about who we send things to. If we can’t find a resale market though, then it goes to recycling and so we send- you wouldn’t believe the range of things. My background has been in municipal recycling, which is bottles and cans and paper and cardboard. We’re recycling vacuum cleaners, CDs, stuffed animals, you name it. It’s a very different thing but there are the markets out there and so we have some fantastic recycling partners who are able to take that weird, crazy material and recycle it for us.
JOHN SHEGERIAN: Gotcha. On your website, you have the Bookworks Program and can you share with our listeners a little bit about Bookworks and how that fits into the Goodwill model also?
KELLY FREEMAN: Sure, so we have a number of bookstores. As you can imagine, we get a lot of books donated here to goodwill so our goal, really, is to just do the best we can as always to get the best value out of there so we sell some books in our stores. We also sell some books on our e-commerce site. We have a very large e-commerce operation here and so we list books on all your regular book shopping sites, Amazon.com, Biblio, five or six different online sites, and then if we’re unable to sell them online or through our stores, we again partner with vendor who buys them and they again attempt to sell some online. If they’re not able to, then they recycle all that paper so it’s another one of these where we’re trying to squeeze the most value that we can and then if we can’t we recycle and get a little more revenue that way and keep it out of the landfill.
JOHN SHEGERIAN: You know, given that these are just in every sector, you’re doing such amazing work so now, your goal is then to raise as much money to help then foster the services of getting more people access to meaningful work?
KELLY FREEMAN: Exactly.
JOHN SHEGERIAN: We’re down to like the last five minutes, Kelly, here so share a little bit about what’s the vision? How do you take it to the next level? Because as we’ve grown here in this great country, there’s, I assume, more and more people that we’ve unfortunately left behind and Goodwill’s opportunity continues to grow so although when you were founded, it was a great operation, you’re even considered a greater organization today. We need your work now more than ever. How do we continue, as a community, to support your great services and where do you want to take it next, Kelly?
KELLY FREEMAN: Where we want to take it here in Goodwill Central Texas, we have a very ambitious goal. As an organization, we think big and so our goal is to take the unemployment rate for these target communities where they have much higher unemployment rates than the standard across the community and we want to take that unemployment rate and take that down to the level that’s average across the rest of the country or less so we want to eliminate that delta between the unemployment rate for our target communities and the standard unemployment rate or even do better than that. That’s a huge, huge goal but that’s really what we want to do here in Central Texas. The way that the community can help us with that is by donating. You can donate your gently used goods to any Goodwill store and we will be the best stewards of that donation that we can possibly be and so we want people to feel confident that when they’re donating to us, we’re going to do the right thing with that material.
JOHN SHEGERIAN: And, so it’s donating material. Is it also an opportunity for people to donate their time and also, if people don’t have material to donate, is it just money? How does that work and do you encourage all those types of donations?
KELLY FREEMAN: Absolutely, yes. Absolutely. We have a lot of opportunities to donate time through providing peer support, sort of a volunteer counselor sort of thing where you can come in and we can match you with someone who is part of one of our target communities that you can help and support them through their process. Also, of course donation of funds is greatly appreciated and we will do great things with that cash too, just like we do with the donations.
JOHN SHEGERIAN: One last question about partnering: How about organizations? How about employers? Do you partner with employers to place people that you’ve trained along the way into viable employment services?
KELLY FREEMAN: Absolutely. We have a huge contract services division where we contract directly with other organizations to provide them with staffing. We also have a temporary staffing group, which the way a lot of temporary services work, if you want to hire that person on full time, there’s a significant fee involved. We feel that’s a barrier to getting people into permanent employment and so we provide a much more financially feasible arrangement for people to bring on those temporary employees on to full permanent status and so we’ve place a large number of people through both of those operations as well.
JOHN SHEGERIAN: You know, Kelly, we have a lot of listeners in Texas. Actually, we have a huge listening group in Texas that follows Green is Good, but we’re heard around the nation but then after the show airs from the great people at Sirius XM, it goes on to the iTunes network and we get thousands of downloads across the world and we have a lot of young entrepreneurs that are always emailing us how do they become the next Kelly Freeman. Can you share in the last two minutes or so your pearls of wisdom on the journey but you’re not only at an amazing and great and wonderful organization but you have such an important role there as a director of sustainability. Can you share a little bit about how America’s youth or international youth can follow in your footsteps?
KELLY FREEMAN: I think just stay focused on what’s most meaningful to you. If you’re doing work that’s meaningful, the success will come and I think just try to be kind to people and do the right thing. Be honest and things will happen for you. I absolutely believe that. Putting hard work in doesn’t seem as hard when the goal that you’re working toward is something that you’re really passionate about.
JOHN SHEGERIAN: That is so nice and out of all the other organizations across America that you mentioned, the 165 other regions, Kelly, do they now all have sustainability directors like you?
KELLY FREEMAN: A great number of them do and more all the time. We have been mentored by some other really fantastic Goodwill organizations in the Pacific Northwest, in Grand Rapids, Michigan, is another very admirable Goodwill organization as far as their sustainability programs. We really share information a lot and more and more, the Goodwill organizations across the country are doing exactly the kind of work we are and we’re doing the same kind of work they are so Goodwill across the country is definitely doing great work.
JOHN SHEGERIAN: And, is there also cross sharing among the 13 other countries that you mentioned or 13 other places outside of the United States?
KELLY FREEMAN: Yeah, somewhat. I personally am not as familiar with them but our parent organization, which is Goodwill International, provides an excellent forum for cross sharing that information.
JOHN SHEGERIAN: Gotcha. Well, thank you so much for today and for our listeners out there, please go to www.austingoodwill.org. We want to continue to help Goodwill give access to meaningful work to people in Central Texas and across the nation. Kelly Freeman, you are a sustainability superstar and truly living proof that green is good.