Updated: Apr 26, 2020
This is a transcript of the podcast interview. Listen to the episode here.
PREMA: My guest today is Anita Howell, who runs Perpetual Blooms, where she recycles event flowers. The flowers are recycled into individual gifts as well as into compost when they reach the end of their life by rehydrating them.
ANITA: I snip them, I tidy them up and make them look beautiful again. So doing all of that and delivering it to the charity and each posy is tagged and it with a note the person receiving it needs to receive something beautiful and something thoughtful. And I want each posy to be something that would make them feel special. It is a completely sustainable process and I close the circle. What I do is I go back after a week or however many days and I pick up all the spent flowers and the vases and I compost all the greenery and foliage and flowers and I recycle the jars and use them again.
PREMA: These flowers are sent to nursing homes, charities, shelters. And anyone whose day needs brightening. The brightness just keeps spreading.
ANITA: Being there and seeing the reaction on people's faces. It's very heartwarming and just such a pleasure to be there to see them like a women's shelter that I deliver to very regularly. Just the staff are so overjoyed to be able to give their clients and residents something personal. They are very good at taking care of them on a daily basis, taking care of their needs and looking after them in that way. But the budgets don't go to the little personal pleasures that you that we take for granted.
PREMA: Perpetual Blooms started in something of an unlikely place, in Anita's home.
ANITA: My mother was a, she's been a really big part of who I am today. She used to run an orphanage in India, and she was, she's a very strong woman, a very wise woman. She's always hammered into me all my life, Be kind, be generous and don't waste. Mum was all about Don't waste. That kind of thinking, I guess, has been with me all my life. And it was just a natural way of thinking, how can I be kind? In life, it doesn't cost anything to think that way. You know, if I complain or whine, she'd always say, you know, you've got so much to be thankful for. There are so many people that have so much less than you. She'd always bring me back down to earth and make me realize that what I was complaining about was pretty petty.
PREMA: Keen to help in the best way she could, Anita wanted to try her hand at nursing. She started by volunteering.
ANITA: At my first ever volunteer role, I was asked to collect all the dentures of all the residents and clean them and just being so green and not knowing anything. I got all the dentures and I tipped them all into the sink and I was cleaning them. And then I realized I didn't know whose dentures were which.
PREMA: Once Anita worked through that minor problem, she spent a good couple of years as a nurse before moving on to become an event manager.
ANITA: I studied and I and I started off just learning office work because I've never done it and learning how the business worked and that's how I got into it. And then I slowly migrated into the event field.
PREMA: Now in the event field, no pun intended, in the job of her dreams, Anita started to notice how much waste there was and the carbon footprint that each event was leaving behind.
ANITA: A lot of my events I would use flowers because flowers tell a story. Flowers can transform a room and they set the mood. And that was one of the tools I used often to to to make my event successful. The downside of that was at the end of the event, they just go to waste and it's they're expensive. And the florists have spent hours and they just they were only there for a few hours. And whether it's a wedding or a or a beautiful gala dinner, the flowers end up usually in the general waste at the end of the night.
PREMA: Be kind, be generous. Don't waste were her mother's words. Anita thought hard and found a natural link between her old and current jobs. That's where the seeds for perpetual blooms were sown, I guess.
ANITA: Just drawing on nursing. My nursing experience that I knew there were people that were isolated and lonely and didn't have the family support system that we all take so for granted and enjoy. And I thought, wow, that would be so wonderful to be able to take these flowers and then give it to someone who hasn't got that support and let them know that someone out there is thinking about them. And it would be a great way to reduce waste from events. It would be a sustainable process. And then that was the thinking around how do I make this less work for anyone else and make it sustainable so that it's not going to be a bigger load on our environment and then also solve as well help a situation in our community and brighten the day of someone that is going through a challenging time.
PREMA: Anita feels her mother's advice is more relevant than ever, especially today.
ANITA: And at this point in our world where we need to have different options and change the way we do things at this time, This is the right thing for me right now, and I think it fits the way society is. And there's just aging that can isolate you. Being in a nursing home and not having those because your family's moved away or you've moved away from your family and now you find yourself aging and in it in an aged care facility that can be isolating. So many people in Australia that are traveling, that are working here, you know, for long periods of time that all of a sudden find themselves with serious illness. And they haven't got the contacts and they're isolated.
PREMA: Anita started her business, unsure if it would work. Or, how much time and commitment it would take outside of her day job.
ANITA: Being an event manager and the skills that I've used and honed over the years has really did play a big part in the initial set up and made it a lot easier for me to get started because I know how to break down a project and I had to investigate what steps need to happen to deliver. I guess learning about flowers and learning the process of arrangement has been something that I've never done before. And so I've done some coursing courses in flower arrangement. And because I want to deliver a great product, I don't want it to look any less than a beautiful bunch that anybody else would receive from a florist.
PREMA: Anita has dedicated herself to focusing on what she can do. On the way, some lovely stories have come back to her, giving her an idea of what her services have meant to so many people.
ANITA: I went to talk to the CEO of Chris O'Brien Lifehouse when I was starting my business and I took her a little posey. As we chatted, she asked if I would mind if she passed on the posy to one of her clients that she wanted to give it to. And I said, of course. Anyway, a couple of days later, she emailed me and said that as she was going up the lift to live at the post. She actually met someone else in the lift, and this lady had been that had been up from the country, from central Australia with her husband, who was receiving cancer treatment. And she had spent six weeks in the hospital with her husband while he received his treatment. And she was quite teary and looking, quite worn, worn down. The CEO was talking to her and said, look, I'm sorry that, you know, you're having a bad day. You can. Would you like this posy of flowers? I know it's not a lot, but I'd like you to have it. And this woman, just the tears just flowed because she said, you don't know how much this means to me. She said, my husband and I are flower farmers and we've been removed from that environment and all our friends for six weeks now just concentrating on this cancer treatment. And this posy just has lifted me so much and given me hope that we will go back one day and be on that farm and with our family again. So that's the impact.
PREMA: Anita wishes she could do more of these types of events and services, but it takes time and a lot of patience. One of the biggest hurdles is pitching her service to companies.
ANITA: I've spent a bit of time with you now and told you a few stories, and I think you're getting the feel for the impact. But to do that over a short sell, a short phone call, like a cold call, hi, I'm Anita, and this is what I do. It's really difficult to get the necessity of this sustainability of it, but the whole sustainability process. And then this beautiful, beautiful story at the end of it, because they've chosen to do something that's great for that for the environment. They're also having this amazing social impact as well. That's my biggest challenge.
PREMA: Anita is willing to put the time in because this is something she believes in at the core of who she is.
ANITA: Push those nerves away and make those cold calls and deal with the rejection and come back again. And because. Because now I know. Now I know it works. I know people's lives are being impacted. And I know I've saved tons of waste. You know so many flowers that would have. People don't realize that when you have these elaborate arrangements and sometimes the products that are used in arranging those flowers are not biodegradable or compostable. I have to pull everything apart.
PREMA: Anita tells me you don't have to set up a business to impact someone's life. Lives are changed in far simpler ways.
ANITA: You never know who is experiencing what. They're very good at masking what's really happening. Our Facebook lives, you know, a typical we tell the good stories and people can look so successful and so happy and so, so full of life. On Facebook, I say just take time to listen to people and to connect like just a good morning. How you going? Ask someone how they are and then just listen. It's about actually just listening and letting that person know that you're listening. A touch. You know, some people don't get touched. And I don't mean intimately. I mean just a hand on a shoulder. It's something we all take for granted, right?
PREMA: If you do want to set up something that contributes in the way of impacting society. Anita talks about her own experience.
ANITA: Googled a lot, Googled my little heart out about everything I thought I might need to learn. And I listened to podcasts of other people who had started smaller enterprises, wrote to people, talked to people, spoke to anybody I could learn. It just became a sponge, really trying to find information on what it takes, what you need to know, how do you even get a name registered? You know, all that kind of stuff. It's all those little things that you don't realize when you've just been employed all your life and you've never started a business. People love to help. And I've found so many people that have been just so generous to me with their knowledge and their experience. And I'm just so thankful for all the support I've received and encouragement. Like I said, I think the biggest thing is resilience. You know, like making sure. You've thought through the process, make sure you've done your homework, but it would be. Don't give up easily. Don't tell them. Don't be put off by the lies. The yeses will come. You just have to be really committed and just nothing can prepare you for the hard work and the amount you'll have to learn. Yeah, I guess that's. Be ready for what you cant be ready for. But just don't understand that it's hard. It is hard. It's not an easy thing. It's not going to happen overnight. It's not. It's just constant hard work, but so rewarding, so wonderful. And if you can bring something that changes the way people are doing things for the better. Then we need you. So keep going.
PREMA: \Anita believes she will get where she wants to go. Slowly but surely, she's in this for the long haul. Committed to making an impact where she can big or small. She has set out her ambition for Perpetual Blooms.
ANITA: I would really love to be able to employ people with a disability and older Australians that need to reskill and who possibly can't work in the roles that they've previously worked in and want to reskill. And I would love to have this huge workforce of people learning, reskilling and learning skills so that they can be employed and doing this wonderful work. So, yeah, that and to be able to change the way Australia is doing events, you know, to make it Sydney a place where if waste is carefully thought about and reduced in and in a city of Sydney have a huge campaign about making this Sydney sustainable. And there's a real drive for it. And this is one way we can make our event sustainable. And so attracting international events and attracting overseas investors destination events. It's a way of lowering that carbon footprint. That's my big picture. I just want to make it more sustainable. Bring employment to people who are finding it difficult to find employment and spreading the love that's spread.