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Philadelphia Laundry Succeeds by Being Green

  • Faiza Elmasry

When Gabriel Mandujano opened Wash Cycle Laundry in Philadelphia four years ago, the 26-year-old social innovator had three goals in mind: making a profit, developing community and staying green. Four years later, he has not only succeeded in achieving these goals, but he is expanding the business as well.

It is hard not to notice them on the streets. Wearing bright orange T-shirts, Wash Cycle Laundry cyclists pick up and deliver laundry around Washington, pulling big orange trailers behind their bikes. That separates Wash Cycle Laundry from other cleaning services. But this is not the only difference. The clothing and linens are cleaned with locally produced and environmentally friendly detergents and delivered in reusable packages.

Founder Gabriel Mandujano wanted to go green, but be competitive too.

“I think a lot of time when people hear 'environmentally friendly', they automatically think 'more expensive', but laundry is really a neat industry where it is cheaper to save water and energy than it is to waste it," said Mandujano.

It is also cheaper to use other companies' equipment.

“We've done millions of pounds of laundry, but we actually do not own a single washing machine ourselves," he said. "We are not bringing anything new to the market. What we've done differently is rather than building one gigantic plant, often in industrial parks, somewhere that is 40 or 50 miles away from the city, we've established ourselves in a lot of sort of micro plants, where we are four or five blocks away from our clients. We always find laundries that are under-utilized and then we make a sort of an agreement with the ownership of that laundry to use it during their downtimes."

Mandujano says the nation’s capital seemed like a lucrative market for his laundry business.

“There are a lot of people who do not have the time, but do have a little bit of income that they can use to afford our service," he said.

Inspired by his background with community development non-profits, Mandujano adopted a purposeful hiring policy to find employees to provide that service.

“About half of our employees are from what you call a vulnerable adult population. That means they could have been chronically unemployed," he said. "They could have been coming off a public benefits program, a number are in recovery from substance abuse. Some have a history of incarceration."

Shawnice Foxx is one of his new hires.

“I thought I wasn't going to be able to continue working here because of my personal problems, but they helped me out," she said. "I'm still here and everything is going great now. I am trying to just sustain one job and be able to be there for years and advance in a company instead of keep hopping from job to job."

Jim Starn, who owns a massage therapy business, says Wash Cycle's social commitment is one reason he is a client. Being green is another.

“It's easy. I do not have to worry about a [delivery] truck coming by and blocking traffic and people being irritated," he said. "And I love the fact that they aren't just using all that gasoline. Because we're a massage studio, people come to us for natural wellness and alternatives. So the fact that we do not have to worry about the chemicals and the bleach and all these things that can be in the laundry and the laundry comes back spotless is just terrific."

As he cycles through the city, picking up and delivering laundry, Chris Walke explains why his job is terrific.

“I get to move around, be active. Be out in the sun," he said. "My body is engaged, but my mind is free, which I really appreciate."

That is what Wash Cycle Laundry founder Mandujano imagined, when he established his enterprise.

“My family was probably a little bit concerned when I told them I was quitting my job to start a laundry business. This is not the most glamorous profession, it's not like going to a dinner or a cocktail party and saying, ‘I'm a doctor’, ‘I'm a lawyer’, ‘I'm a banker,’" he said. "I think as business has grown, people started to see the vision and what we have been able to accomplish and where we might go."

Mandujano plans to expand Wash Cycle Laundry - and his approach to social innovation - to other U.S. cities and, he hopes, around the world.

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