How IRN Found Ourselves in the Furniture Business

The Beginning:  Boston, 2002 

Boston College, 2002 – IRN’s first surplus furniture project

A parking lot filled with furniture.  That was the beginning of IRN’s Reuse Program.

IRN got its start as a recycling cooperative for education and healthcare.  As a coop, we had members, and our role was to take over their loading docks and find a home for all their recyclables:  paper and cardboard, cans and bottles, scrap metal, plastics, computers, fluorescent lamps, and whatever else.

And then furniture.  Boston College called, with a parking lot filled with dormitory furniture.  We looked at it and said, ‘This is good stuff.  Why aren’t you giving it to a halfway house or a homeless shelter, an organization that can use it?’  To which BC replied, ‘We’re in Boston.  Within ten miles there are three dozen schools and 40,000 dorm rooms.  Every one has this same furniture to get rid of, and we’ve filled up every shelter and thrift store in three states.  We just need the stuff to go away.’  So IRN recycled it.

We knew there had to be a better solution.  So we started making calls to national and international nonprofits that provide relief and development on a national or global scale.

But we knew there had to be a better solution, and we started making calls.  Not to local charities, but to national and international organizations that provide relief and development on a large scale.  Perhaps they would be able to use good-quality furniture in the quantities that were available from IRN and our members – hundreds or sometimes thousands of pieces at a time.

There Was Supply and Demand, But No One to Make a Match

What we discovered was a market failure.  There was a huge need among relief organizations for usable furniture – to rebuild after floods and earthquakes, provide families a better home, give students the chance to study at a real desk.  There was more need for furniture than IRN could ever hope to provide.  And on the other side we knew there was a huge supply.

But there was no one to match supply with demand.  Among the generators – that is, the schools with furniture to dispose of –no one had the time and resources to network with the dozens of charities who might be able to use the furniture.  Among the potential recipients no one had the time and resources to contact the thousands of schools that might have usable furniture to offer.  Neither the schools nor the charities had the capability to plan and manage the projects to make the transfer happen – set up moving crews, organize transportation, pack trucks, fill out customs paperwork, track the furniture to its destination.

So millions of pounds of good furniture kept going into dumpsters, and kids kept doing schoolwork on wood planks.

We kept making calls.  We started making matches with the larger charities, and began moving furniture.  In 2002 we shipped two trailers of furniture.  In 2003 we shipped 20.  Then 85 in 2004.  Then 259 in 2005, and from there the program has continued growing.  Starting with those first two trailers in 2002, through mid-2017 IRN has loaded and shipped more than 5,500 trailers filled with furniture.  Expanding beyond our base in higher ed, we now also regularly manage furnishings from corporations, hospitals, and K-12 schools – a total of 535 organizations in 28 states.  We have provided furnishings to more than 125 nonprofit schools and charities in 43 U.S. states and 60 countries around the world.

The Pillars of IRN’s Reuse Program:  Education, Healthcare, Corporations

The need for usable furnishings, among people who simply cannot afford to buy new, is beyond counting.  We could find, pack and ship furniture until Doomsday, and barely put a dent in the need.  Here’s where IRN is most active:

EDUCATION is the best route out of poverty, but it’s hard to get an education when you’re sitting on a dirt floor.  The charities IRN works with are desperate to acquire classroom furniture and everything that goes with it – libraries, cafeterias, science rooms.  K‑12 is the gold standard of all the furniture IRN handles.

If K-12 is gold, HEALTHCARE is platinum.  Anything from a healthcare setting:  patient rooms, doctors’ offices, maternity wards, rehab facilities, operating rooms, lounges, storage and administrative areas.  Out of everything IRN handles, healthcare is the most valuable, most sought after and most desperately needed.

Worldwide, tens of millions of families are displaced – casualties of floods, earthquakes hurricanes, and war.  Millions more live in tin and cardboard shanties.  Here in the U.S. there are millions who don’t have resources to buy basic furnishings.  RESIDENTIAL FURNITURE from colleges, universities, and independent schools makes a vital contribution to rebuilding, or building from scratch.

CORPORATE furniture is a jack-of-all-trades.  IRN provides hundreds of shipments to U.S. nonprofits like Habitat for Humanity ReStores and charitable thrift shops.  Desks and tables are assimilated into classrooms; storage and file cabinets find use in schools and clinics; seating of all kinds is always much needed.  Corporate furnishings don’t have a consistent role.  Like a great utility player, they fill many.

A Thank You

If the world is going to achieve a sustainable future, every organization on the planet will need to live the reality that social and environmental good must coexist with economic success.  IRN was founded on the premise that that outcome is possible – that a company providing social and environmental benefit can survive and thrive in the “real” economy.  Across 15 years now, thanks to the thousands of people and organizations who have helped and supported us along the way (and who we hope have come out ahead – socially, environmentally, and financially), we think we’ve proved that.  For that, to each and every one, we thank you.