Ah, Earth Day. It’s that shiny moment in April abuzz with anybody and everybody talking their saving-the-planet talk.
Of course, actually walking that environmental walk is a bit trickier—especially on a year-round basis. But with its unique voice and gait, the Community Forklift seems to have figured out that 365-day-a- year talk and walk balance.
And, as any regular customer knows, the Edmonston nonprofit hasn’t had to preach any holier-than-thou, eat-your-broccoli, recycle-or-die sermons to achieve that eco-equilibrium during its seven-year history.
Instead, ever since its tiny but ingenious staff of four scratched out a daring reuse mission of “lifting up communities” back in late 2005, the Forklift has chosen to welcome anybody dedicated to advancing this grand but funky green experiment with a warm smile and a hearty embrace.
This open-minded approach—a combination of outside-the-box thinking and old-fashioned elbow grease—has spawned legitimate conservation credentials for the Forklift. For instance, the venture has created 30 green jobs, a seven-fold increase in seven years, to keep its 34,000-square foot warehouse humming. As well, evolving into a donation repository where tradespeople, contractors, property owners and institutions as diverse as National Geographic and the Smithsonian Institution have diverted $8 million worth of building materials from landfills has given 20,000 local homeowners access to affordable repairs and renovations.
“We’re hitting our stride,” said Nancy Meyer, the Forklift’s chief executive officer since 2012. “We’re still in a high-growth mode so the challenge now is attending to a million details and trying to make order in a young organization.”
Meyer had joined the small Forklift staff as its business manager in early 2007 when it was barely out of its infancy. Her arrival seemed a hand-in-glove fit for an advocate who had gravitated to a career nurturing young and struggling nonprofits after earning an undergraduate degree in Individual Studies and Art and doing graduate work in American Studies and Education. Before attending college in her mid-20s, she made her living as a union-trained carpenter for several years.
By 2009, Meyer had advanced to a position as the Forklift’s chief operating officer, charged with guiding an earnest but somewhat wobbly toddler of an organization.
“I knew this place was not business as usual and I wanted to maximize its potential,” she said about the Forklift’s magnetic pull that has kept her there for six years. “I enjoy dealing with the building materials but this is about being at a place that’s the crossroads of a community where so many different people interact.”
Lists compiled by organizations such as the Building Materials Reuse Association, a trade group the Forklift belongs to, are evidence that hundreds of home improvement thrift stores exist nationwide. And they wouldn’t be operating if they couldn’t collect the lumber, flooring, woodwork, doors, appliances, bathtubs, sinks and lighting fixtures that attract customers.
Meyer certainly comprehends the value of each of those items. But in her view, they are a means for cultivating relationships with every layer of the community, not the be-all and end-all.
Simply put, people matter at the Forklift.
“Yes, we sell stuff but it’s never just about the materials,” Meyer said. “A vital part of what we do is respect and honor the part humans play. It’s about building capacity and knowledge.”
That unconventional philosophy is one of the reasons that Forklift staffers greet regular customers and newcomers by name. And it’s why some of those same customers line up at the checkout line to show off photos detailing how they have transformed doors into headboards, scrap lumber into chicken coops, broken tile into mosaic artwork or bathtubs into planters.
That line of thinking also spurs contractors, do-it-yourselfers, landlords, artists, government employees, retirees and families from all backgrounds mingle daily and en masse at seasonal Forklift-based events such as birthday celebrations, the Garden Party and the Pirate Party.
The goodwill generated by connecting people with one another and inviting them to hunt for salvage and surplus treasures has earned the Forklift plenty of kudos. Customers consistently vote the nonprofit as the top hardware and home goods store in annual contests operated by the City Paper and The Washington Post.
In this land of abundance, Meyer envisions the Forklift as a lesson in how less can actually be more.
“It can serve as a way station for people and stuff,” she said, adding that the continual cycle of donating and buying allows for large-scale sharing in the community. “That can help people realize they don’t need to own everything. If you’re patient, everything you need will come through this place.”
Remarkably, construction and solid waste debris—the Forklift’s bread and butter—makes up about 40 percent of this country’s solid waste stream. Simple math reveals that burying or incinerating an item that has served just one purpose doesn’t make any sense when the economic and environmental costs of raw materials, human labor and energy are factored in.
“If we reuse it in some capacity, the value is retained and in some cases enhanced,” Meyer said. “In this land of overproduction, reuse is about respect and realizing that things are not just endlessly available. What we’re doing at the Forklift is engineering a different relationship with the material world.
“With reuse, we not only value the planet but also the inventiveness of the people who do it. It’s about creating value and beauty.”
While transactions at the Forklift are steadily rising as its audience and inventory expands—total sales topped $1 million for the first time in 2012—Meyer is devoting much of her acumen to achieving financial stability at a nonprofit still in its startup phase. Part of that involves securing a long-term location—either in its current leased building or another warehouse in the Port Towns.
But she has no plans to retreat from the venture’s central mission.
A recent spate of hiring means even more Forklifters are available to lure reuse rookies aboard at dozens of area festivals, street fairs, and home and garden shows.
Plus, the Forklift will continue sharing even more of its bounty with other nonprofits and low-income families because it’s a central tenet of community-building. Last year, the Forklift helped 63 families in need by donating close to $14,000 in appliances. That was in addition to the 97 schools, theaters, arts organizations and other nonprofits that benefited from upward of $34,400 in Forklift in-kind donations.
Meyer insists that a customer’s visit to the Forklift should be an experience instead of a mere shopping trip. That’s why she backed an idea to turn prime retail space in the front of the warehouse into a resource center that’s a hub for reuse information and workshops.
Other ideas up her entrepreneurial sleeve include partnering with Prince George’s County to reprocess and market excess paint as a distinct Community Forklift brand, adding a gallery for Forklift-inspired artists and exploring the concept of a general store that features eco-friendly merchandise.
In the meantime, the Forklift will greet the 43rd anniversary of Earth Day on April 22 as it does any other day—by continuing to promote its own offbeat shade of green that shows no sign of fading.
“What we’re creating here is a whole different place than anyplace else in this community,” Meyer said. “This is what we do.”