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Leena Nukari: How Consumption Can be Turned Into Saving Natural Resources
2023-05-25 ICCSD

How Consumption Can be Turned Into Saving Natural Resources 

Leena Nukari 

Head of Environmental Education Services

Helsinki Metropolitan Area Reuse Centre

Email: leena.nukari@kierratyskeskus.fi 


Introduction – About the life in Finland

The General Assembly of the United Nations proclaimed in 2011 that happiness is a universal goal. The first World happiness report was released the next year. According to this report, Finland has been the happiest country in the world for the last five years (1). A Finnish happiness researcher Markku Ojanen says, that results can be explained by the fact that Finland is a prosperous, secure and democratic welfare state (2). The standard of living is high. An average Finn gets about 3,600€ for his monthly salary (3) and feels happy to pay about 30% of it as taxes for the society (4). In return for the taxes, schools and education are free for all, there are good health services and social security available for everybody.  

The creation of the Finnish school system has had an important role in building the Finnish society. The primary school reform was run in 1972-1977. During the reform, the schools became gradually obligatory and free of charge for everybody, and their curriculums were carefully planned. The reform has showed to be very successful also by the learning results of the students, as Finland has had good results in the OECD countries common PISA (Programme for International Students Assessment) results (6). The higher education is also free for all. This has brought a lot of equality to the society as anybody who wish can study and improve their lives with this knowledge.

To understand the thinking of Finnish people, and the way how the Finnish administration has been formulated to its present democratic basis, it is good to know certain things of the history of the small land. When Finland became independent in the year 1917 the country was still very poor. Most of the people living in the area were poor smallholders, and the land was mainly forest without much industry. Nevertheless, the society was very divided to upper class and the very poor working class. This led to the worst period of Finnish history as the country was led to a very bad civil war between different classes. The happenings and cruelty that happened during that time left a permanent trauma to Finnish society. Later in the second world war, Finland was defending its own independence against Russia for many years with the support of Germany. After the second World War, Finland went through a time of economical difficulties. The nation had to improve the industry to pay the war reparations and to rebuild the society. Nevertheless, the common objective united the nation to some extent as the parties of the civil war had to become closer to each other in the face of a common challenge of building the nation. Equality, solidarity and working hard have been very strong values in Finland since. During the last 70 years the Finnish society has seen a remarkable improvement both economically and socially. Finland is part of the European Economic Region since 1992 and in 1995 Finland became a member of European Union and has had the Euro currency since 2002. During the Covid19 pandemic, Finnish people have been able to convert their work and schoolwork quite easily to remote working and schooling as the equipment and skills already were there. The digitalisation is advanced in all the country. Most children that start the school have their own smartphones and also the older people use digital services widely. The life expectancy is 79 years for men and 85 years for women (7).

The negative side of the high standard of living is the high consumption of natural resources that follows it. An average Finnish person consumes about 40,000 kilograms of solid natural resources a year. One of the most consuming sectors is the transport as Finns travel on average 42 km a day to get to work and hobbies. Also housing and food are in important role. About 3000 kg of natural resources are yearly used to produce items for an average Finn (8). Most people don't think about this, and they are not aware of the total amount of resources that they consume. Many of these resources are wasted already during the production of the products. As the production happens mostly somewhere far from Finland, Finnish people consume mostly foreign resources. It has been calculated, that if all the people in the world, would consume as much as the Finns, we would need about 5 planets to produce all the renewable resources needed (9). As we only have one planet, this kind of lifestyle is not sustainable nor fair. There is an urgent need to decrease the yearly natural resource consumption of the Finnish people to 1/5 of what it is now. At the same time, as we know that most production results in pollution and carbon dioxide emissions, the reduction of consumption also helps degreasing the global warming.  

Finland is committed to the United Nation's Agenda 2030 Sustainable Development Goals. Most of these goals are well managed in Finland, but the goals for sustainable consumption, climate action and biodiversity protection need special attention. These are especially the goals that are related to the ecological sustainability (10). The awareness of people to these questions is high, but there is still lot to do to get the actions of people to really be sustainable, as it requires often abstinence and lot of information to be able to do good choices. In the Finnish school and day care curriculums, the sustainability education has a very strong mandate since the last curriculum reform in 2016. The curriculums are committed to the concept of eco-social education, which puts the ecological sustainability as the first priority, and the social wellbeing as the second. This means, that we should above all recognise the priority of the ecological wellbeing because the life on earth is depending on a healthy biosphere (11). This statement puts the different aspects of sustainable development to a hierarchy between each other. The same idea is expressed in the Stockholm Resilience Centres so called "wedding cake model of the development goals". In this model, the Agenda 2030 development goals related to the healthy biosphere come first, the ones related to fair and just society are on the second step, the economy should be there only to support the two above mentioned and the co-operation is there to glue all these goals together (12). This model contracts with the usual approach where the three aspects of sustainability, ecological, economic and social, are seen as equally important. Nevertheless, no matter how we see the sustainability, the sustainability education is challenging for teachers, and schools need continuously a lot of support in its implementation.

In the big picture the whole Finnish society is in face of a new challenge, that is to get the consumption to a sustainable level and to achieve with the ecological development targets. In the history, the Finns have been able to improve their lives with hard work and the same way they want to change now the future to a more sustainable one. It is a question of equality between the generations and a question of equality on a global level. The difference about the situations is that this time, after starting locally, the work needs to be done internationally, because the problem of overconsumption we are facing, is a global one.

Helsinki Metropolitan Area Reuse Centre Ltd. was founded to save natural resources 

The Helsinki Metropolitan Area Reuse Centre Ltd. has been in operation since 1990 in Finland's main metropolitan area, that is in the Cities of Helsinki, Espoo, Vantaa, Kauniainen and Kirkkonummi.  About one million people live in this region from a total of 5.5 million people in all of Finland. The Reuse Centre was started as a popular movement with the goal of saving natural resources. In the beginning, people were exchanging used clothes with each other informally only on certain days. There were not so many second-hand stores at the time, but there was a well-established need for them. Today, The Helsinki Metropolitan Area Reuse Centre Ltd. runs Finland’s largest reuse goods sorting centre with 11 shops selling recycled and upcycled or repurposed items and including an online store. Some of the shops are big supermarkets, others are cosy little shops. The major shareholder is the City of Helsinki. Other owners are the surrounding municipalities, the local waste management authority, and a few Non-Governmental Organizations normally known as NGOs. The prices of items are kept reasonable in the stores. Those items that are not bought in a reasonable time from the stores are made available free of charge.  All the items that are sold by the various stores have been donated.

The Helsinki Metropolitan Area Reuse Centre promotes sustainable lifestyles and the saving of natural resources through prolonging the lifecycle of different goods. There is always some furniture that may not fit into a new home or a pair of good trousers that are just a little bit too small. These goods can be donated to the Reuse Centre where people who need them, can buy them for a reasonable price. Every year about five million items circulate to new owners through the Reuse Centre. As the goal in these actions is to save natural resources, we also calculate, how much has been saved. We share these calculations with our customers. All the products in the stores are nicely labelled. The product categories have values of natural resource consumption. When a customer buys a product from the store, they receive a receipt which shows how many kilograms of solid natural resources were saved by choosing to buy recycled products. A sofa, for example, saves about 500kg of solid material.

To get reasonably correct values about the savings of natural resources, the Reuse Centre employs a continuous program of research to ensure the high quality of these judgements. Our experts have designed a natural resource consumption calculation programme, in which each product category has its own determination of the number of resources needed to produce an average product of that kind. These estimates are made by studying carefully how the products are made and what materials are used. Often, items need to be disassembled or carefully measured to evaluate the different materials used separately.  At the end of the process, an informed estimate can be made of how many natural resources are saved when buying used products instead of new ones.  

Using these methods, the Helsinki Metropolitan Area Reuse Centre saves 51 million kilograms of solid natural resources, 2.3 billion litres of water, and 12.3 million kilograms of carbon dioxide emissions. The prices of these used products are always less expensive than for a new product, so while saving resources for society, the customer also saves money. As it is essential that items are not backlogged and take up valuable space in the store displays, about a third of all items are given away free of charge. This way we make the best use of all products, even those that are not in the best condition.

How the process from donations to selling items work 

All goods that are for sale in Reuse Centre stores are donated from the public. As a rule, all donations should be intact, clean, and in good condition. Electronic equipment and bikes are an exception to this rule because they can be fixed in the Reuse Centre's repair workshops. There are several different ways to make donations. Donors may bring donations to stores or some other established collection points in the area.

The Reuse Centre has a single centralised sorting facility. When the donated goods arrive, they are quickly moved to the various shops and clients. Depending on the time of year, bikes, winter sports equipment, and some other items are stored for future sale depending on their season for normal use.  Donated items of good quality are given priority handling, priced appropriately, and moved to the stores for quick sale.  Unfortunately, some goods are not fit for sale. Some are suitable to be given away for free and the rest are sorted into ten different waste types for material recycling. We always try to find the best solution for all the goods regardless of condition. 

Personal clothing items are normally donated to the Centre in large quantities. Those suitable for reuse are sorted to a dozen different categories. They then proceed to pricing and labelling. The sorting facility sends all the products appropriately labelled with price tags to the Reuse Centre shops, according to each shop's demand for that category as established in a pre-order process. Naturally, some items have higher demand than others and the pricing decisions take this into account. Demand and flow of goods are monitored by printing barcodes on the price tags. Unfortunately, much of the donated clothes are not suitable for selling. They are removed from the process early and either given away or processed for recycling. This early separation of these items avoids the cost of pricing and sending them to the various stores.   

Good quality clothing should wear well and, with proper care, remain in good condition for a long time. However, much of the donated clothing is not in good shape as it has been produced badly in the first place. Often this clothing is sold relatively cheaply in retail stores, so it is tempting for the consumer to buy it. As the cloth gets malformed only after a few washes, it can almost be compared to a single-use product. The best way to save resources, would be to reduce the production and selling of this kind of product. Nevertheless, this kind of material needs to be sorted from the more suitable donated clothing. The sheer volume of clothing donations requires an efficient conveyer belt system to sort these items. Good quality clothes for reuse are retrieved from the belt for pricing and delivery to shops. Broken and dirty clothes proceed on the belt. Those that are still suitable for material recycling are packed in and sent to a textile material recycling factory. Those clothes that are not suitable for reuse or material recycling become fuel for energy production.  

Repair workshops and upcycling old materials to new products returns old goods back to use 

There are certain product categories that consume more natural resources than others in production. Two examples are electronic equipment and bicycles. It requires on average about 440kg of solid natural material to produce one laptop and about 350 kg for one bicycle. The longer we make use of these high resource cost items, the more of these resources we save. The responsible use of manufactured items can make them last longer, and it is cost efficient to repair them as needed. In the Helsinki Metropolitan Area Reuse Centre, we have workshops that examine and repair these items. This means that these products are carefully checked, and if needed, they are fixed. The buyer gets a certificate of guarantee from the store that the equipment or bicycle is safe and working. Even though repair of these high value items is a very good practice, it is not reasonable to repair all items, such as clothes. The workshops for electronics and bicycles have been established, because these products consume a lot of natural resources, and it is possible to get a relatively good selling price for them.  

A bit in the same manner, another workshop called Plan B, picks up certain products to upcycle them. Plan B is a unique line of stylish upcycled products, that are handmade using only recycled materials. The Plan B collection includes clothes, accessories, furniture, and interior design items. Every Plan B product has a unique look as it depends on the varied materials used in their creation. For example, a worn-out well-designed sofa is reupholstered to make it like a completely new one. Newly designed clothes are made from recycled fabrics. Items such as interior decorative blackboards and other items are made from old tennis rackets, for example. These used products that are not wanted or reusable as it is, get a new chance and can continue their lifecycle as a different product.  

Craft supplies and workshops 

The Reuse Centre welcomes donations of materials and products that companies and households no longer need but are suitable for handicraft use. These materials are reused bringing joy to children and others who need them without causing more strain on the environment. From all our stores, one can buy cheap, ecological craft supplies such as buttons, wooden beads, pieces of cloth, ribbon, and assorted sundries. These items are placed in small, attractive packages. Schools, day-care centres, educators, and other non-commercial users receive these materials at no charge. This policy allows schools to easily get material for their art projects and teach circular economy basics at the same time. Besides materials, The Reuse Centre offers inspiring workshops on craft projects for work communities or other groups. In these creative workshops, the participants can make presents, jewellery, packages, and other objects. They may also sew bags, clothes, and accessories. Many inspiring craft ideas are shared in social media in the form of instruction videos. 

Environmental School Promotes Sustainability Education 

The Helsinki Metropolitan Area Reuse Centre has its own Environmental School. The Reuse Centre's Environmental School designs inspiring study material and training for schools and early childhood education. All the programs support Finnish national study curriculums. The school has about 40 lessons actively in use and new ones are made every year. The Centre's educators, experienced in both environmental sustainability and pedagogy visit schools, day care centres and children's events to support high quality environmental education. They also work with various adult groups, such as housing cooperatives and work communities.    

The Reuse Centre offers its facilities for educational purposes. Programs about the circular economy are presented for all ages. These presentations answer such questions as: "Where do clothes come from?", "How often do we need to buy new clothes?" and "How to buy long lasting clothes?". Younger students make animations about the life cycle of a T-shirt. For older pupils and adults, there is an example wardrobe showing how to differentiate good and poor quality in clothing. The aim is to help people buy clothes that last for a long time providing good value.    

All work of the Environmental School aims to promote the Sustainable Development Goals and save natural resources. In the provided training programs and lessons, the reasons, and possible solutions for how an individual or a company can achieve these goals, are examined. The primary idea is that the educational programs empower the participants to take action for a sustainable future. It is important to give positive examples on ways to change our habits and make a positive impact. In the best case, actions are done together in a mutually supportive environment. This approach empowers the participants to take even more significant actions when required later. Methods used (drama, visit to the recycling centre, learning outside, creative workshops) subtly inspire the participants increasing the chances that the information provided will result in positive change. After participants are emotionally engaged, they are keener to act. The work with the schools also includes guidance for educators to improve their school's operational environment to support sustainability goals providing a continuing positive example.

Supporting professional educators is one important priority in the work of the Environmental School. Many teaching materials are published throughout the year and training related to Education for Sustainable Development methods are being organised constantly. Online teaching has enabled the educators' training opportunities to expand. A program to encourage international participation was initiated before the Covid19 pandemic. This idea was very promising and will be reinstated at the right time. Our experts have also participated in many online panels and in international webinars. 

In 2019, the Environmental School provided educational services for approximately 65,000 persons. In 2020-2021 the number was a bit less, about 40,000 persons each year, due to the Covid19 pandemic. Nevertheless, the materials produced by the school have been actively used and about 80 000 persons visited the school's webpages last year. Since its inception, about 845 000 persons have benefited from the school's programs, and the materials produced are widely used in Finland. The Foundation for Environmental Education in Finland awarded "The Rose of Environmental Education" in 2020 to the Environmental School for its long and impressive work for environmental education.  

Services for businesses and communities 

Environmental responsibility is a very important goal for companies and communities. It is a way to do good, but also a competitive advantage and vital in making an impact on society. Reuse of materials and environmental responsibility are important values that can become an everyday part of business practice, community activities, and various public events, starting with baby steps if needed. The Centre can help move towards responsible solutions. This can mean embedding an environmental programme as an everyday practise or committing to eco-friendly practices together with staff and customers. The help that companies need can be anything from recycling and decorating with reused furniture to providing staff with reused bikes and other items. Event organisers can make the world a bit greener by providing sustainable experiences for their visitors. This could be pop-up recycling or reuse points, a handcraft workshop, or second-hand do-it-yourself stick horse racing. The Reuse Centre helps its clients to determine ways to turn a company's environmental programme from theory to practise and strengthen their environmental message. 

As the Helsinki Metropolitan Area Reuse Centre has long experience in environmental management and documenting the resulting successes, they are a good consulting partner for companies that wish to improve or determine the impact of their efforts and products. Our consulting services for the companies include calculations of the natural resource's consumption and carbon dioxide production. Providing companies information on the environmental effects of their work, helps them to better plan the improvements they will take.  

Providing Opportunities 

Employment is an important issue in Finland. In the beginning of 2022, about 7% of the working age population was unemployed (13). The Finnish social security system helps unemployed people by providing unemployment support, but the system has certain limitations in terms of duration. Furthermore, if the period of unemployment becomes longer, the more difficult it becomes to find work. Based on this, the Finnish social security system supports benefits to employers if they provide work for the unemployed. 

The Helsinki Metropolitan Area Reuse Centre is a social enterprise. When employing staff, it prioritises disadvantaged people and those who have been seeking work for a long time. Work is offered for people who are disabled, the long-term unemployed, non-Finnish speaking immigrants, on-the-job trainees, and people performing community service. There are many kinds of work to be done in Reuse Centre so it’s easy to find suitable jobs for everyone. Every year about 400 people work in the Centre, and about 70% of them are returning from unemployment and on their way back to full employment. 

Employment in the Reuse Centre gives people new perspectives for their future, job experience, career opportunities, new or sharpened skills, up-to-date environmental training, and professional support. Work is also a possibility to engage yourself and take part in society. 

The above-mentioned benefits can be also achieved with voluntary work. Many people share the values of the company, and they can participate by working as volunteers without getting paid for the work. This work can be arranged regularly or occasionally, as it best fits the volunteer’s schedule and the task at hand.

Sustainability as a goal in all the work 

Responsibility and sustainability are basic principles in all the work that The Helsinki Metropolitan Area Reuse Centre does. This means that all the purchased products are environmentally friendly, we recycle all the trash, we save energy, and we train all the staff members to understand environmental challenges and how to solve them at our work.  

The first principle in our purchases is that if something is not necessary, we don't buy it. If it is possible, we buy things from our own stores as reused products. For example, all the offices of the company are furnished with furniture that was originally donated. If some employee needs a new computer or other working equipment, the first choice is to find a recycled item from our own stores. However, not all necessary products can be purchased from second hand stores. For example, for safety reasons and by law, cleaning chemicals can't be sold in reuse stores. In these cases, The Reuse Centre always selects products that are environmentally friendly. In Finland, products have many certification systems, making it easy for a customer to know which products have less impact on the environment. Also, when buying food, local producers, products from organic farming and fair-trade products are prioritised. 

Trash is carefully sorted into 10 different categories for recycling. Paper, cardboard, metals, plastic and glass containers, as well as electronic equipment are taken to material recycling for producing new products. Biodegradable waste is collected to both to the biowaste collection and to be composted. Wood and different kinds of burnable trash are collected for energy production depending on their burning qualities. Hazardous waste is collected separately. The priority is always to prolong the lifecycle of goods. This means we try to get everything reused or repaired. The second option is to recycle the material and the very last is to burn it for energy recovery. 

The Reuse Centre also strives to lower its energy consumption. The electricity it buys is produced by windmills. Energy saving solutions are constantly studied and implemented. For example, lights have been changed to L.E.D., cars have been changed to use biodiesel or biogas, and in the workplaces, measures have been taken to avoid heat leakage from doorways. The Helsinki Metropolitan Area Reuse Centre has created its own environmental education for its staff. The training of the staff with the skills of sustainable development empowers them and enhance their possibility of future employment. 

The environmental work of Reuse Centre is also audited. The Reuse Centre has an Ecocompass certificate for its environmental work as company and a World Wildlife Foundation (WWF) certificate for Green Offices for the office work that is done.  


The goal of the work in the Helsinki Metropolitan Area Reuse Centre is to save natural resources by increasing reuse and environmental awareness. A more reasonable use of resources may lead to an even more fulfilling life. The customers in Reuse Centres stores are much more than just consumers. They really make a difference towards a better future. This possibility to shape the future and be an active part of it, gives hope and shapes your positive self-image. When you work not only for your own benefit, but for a common goal your life has a bigger meaning.

In these stores of Reuse Centre, saving natural resources is made as easy and fun as possible. All the products sold in the stores have been donated by public. The workshops inspire reuse and give a new, prolonged life to thousands of items. The Reuse Centre is an excellent place to buy second hand products, equipment and, anything you might need. Every customer receives a receipt, which is evidence of natural resources they saved when they bought used items instead of new ones. The Environmental School trains thousands of people yearly to improve their lifestyle and the Centre's consultants help businesses to improve their environmental management.  

With these various services, the Helsinki Metropolitan Area Reuse Centre, invites everybody to be inspired to get in action and start saving natural resources. Believe it or not, it can also make you happy!



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