One day in May 2005, it rained furniture in downtown Los Angeles. From a fifth-story office window on Main Street, desks, drawers, bookcases, and every variety of office equipment were dumped unceremoniously down to the pavement below. Behind a chain link fence, Rose Tourje, then a senior associate at architecture firm Daniel Mann Johnson and Mendenhall, watched and was appalled at the waste. “It went on for a few days. All sorts of furniture you could imagine just came tumbling out the window.”
Every year, about four billion pounds of furniture, carpet and construction waste gets dumped into landfills across the United States, estimates Tourje. Many of it is in good working condition. “[In corporate interior design,] we were informed that materials were in abundance. There was a thrust for building bigger, better, but not for efficiencies and focusing in on a more holistic type of practice.”
Bothered by what she saw, Tourje returned to work and shared her experience, only to be reassured by colleagues who said, “Everything’s okay. It’s all being recycled.” It wasn’t. The next day, Tourje took her lunch break and tailed the procession of trucks piled high with the discarded furniture all the way to the landfill.
“It seemed that it was all reactionary. There was very little foresight with what to do with all that furniture,” said Tourje. While the U.S. Green Building Council had been making inroads to improve sustainable building, no one had given much attention to the backend of the practice—asset liquidation. “Seeing this, I realized something like ANEW was truly needed.”
Tourje, then 47, left DMJM and founded Asset Network for Education Worldwide (ANEW) a nonprofit that diverts corporate furniture from landfills and re-allocates it to nonprofits, charities, police and fire departments in the donor’s community.
“It caused a commotion,” says Tourje, “Rumors were flying around not just at the office but in the industry. People were worried. They’d heard I was hanging out at landfills,” says Tourje.
But Tourje knew she was on the right track. ANEW’s model is a win-win for all parties involved. Donors lower their ecological footprint and are eligible for tax deductions, while beneficiaries receive good furniture without the hefty price tag.
While Tourje’s career change was an imperative—“It felt like I was being called out,” she says—it was never easy. When Tourje first began, she had nothing but a portion of her daughter’s college fund to start with. She turned a spare bedroom into her home office and worked singlehandedly for two years. She doggedly set up meetings with contacts she had made over her 30-year career in architecture design.
It wasn’t until a year into the effort that she found a partner in Bentley Prince Street, her first longterm sponsor and one of the largest carpet manufacturers in the western U.S. “As soon as he heard my story, he motioned to his assistant and there was a very large check to help me underwrite what it was that I was going to do,” recounts Tourje of her meeting with Bentley Prince Street president Anthony Minute, who has since then become ANEW’s Chairman of the Board. One of the carpet manufacturer’s warehouses in the City of Industry now holds ANEW’s stash of donated furniture and fixtures.
In its seven years of operations, ANEW has helped more than 500 organizations in 13 countries around the world with a team of just four people and riding on office relocator InstallNET’s logistics arm. Tourje estimates that ANEW diverts about 9 million pounds of furniture from landfill every year. It is a drop in the bucket to be sure, but Tourje says, “I don’t look at those numbers. I look at the people. I look at the faces and I see the impact we’re doing and I’m encouraged to keep doing it.”
Last year, ANEW and icnonic furniture giant Knoll rolled out Full Circle, a comprehensive program that helps Knoll clients liquidate furniture sustainably by selling, re-purposing or recycling leftover furniture. What ANEW and Knoll can’t save using these three options gets turned into renewable energy using Covanta’s Energy from Waste facilities. ANEW is also working with Kaiser Permanente and HSBC Bank of New York, advising them on sustainable liquidation practices.
Starting from almost nothing, ANEW has built for itself an enviable network of stalwart supporters. This year, they’re looking to build it up even more by working on a series of educational films meant to capture their recipients’ stories and increase awareness. Tourje calls it harnessing the power of one more—one more drop in what she hopes could someday be a tidal wave of sustainability.