Topic

Type

Short Film | 07:44 min read

Portrait of

Maria Fryd

Location

Copenhagen, Denmark

Still photography by

Adam Morris Philp & Alexander Fazio

Interviewed by

Francesca Norrington

Circularity & Design

A conversation with Maria Fryd Wehler, a pioneer in the sustainable furniture industry.

“I often feel that I am the annoying one to have at a dinner party because I am constantly discussing the issue of environmental sustainability; it can feel very lonely.”

Maria Fryd Wehler

Can you introduce yourself, your company and the inspiration that led to its creation?

In 2017 we founded Wehlers. But the idea started all the way back in 2014, at the Design Museum in Copenhagen. Henrik and I brought our kids, and we walked the design route of furniture in Denmark, starting all the way back and ending up in a room where they had made their suggestions for where Danish design furniture would end up. There was a cardboard chair and a coffee table with Coca-Cola bottles as legs, primarily furniture made from garbage.

That is where we took the idea of Wehlers, making furniture out of waste. Our mindset was that we could use waste, but the waste did not necessarily have to be visible in the product. After all, the shape and design of the product are also priorities.

You mention that “Recycling is a great place to start but a bad place to stop.” Can you expand on this statement?

Companies have started communicating circular economy, which is great because more and more people will eventually know what it means. The circular economy is not just making a product out of recycled materials. That’s half the circle. You need to have the rest of the circle. You need to take responsibility for the product that you send into the world. We follow a methodology called ‘furniture for good’, which is also our tagline. Concerning our chair, if the customer doesn’t want it anymore, we pick it up, refurbish it, rent it out or resell it as reused. Ultimately, we ensure that no materials will ever end up as waste again. And I think that’s where we need to end up with everything we do.

We need to distance ourselves from this old way of doing business; many companies that are communicating circular economy are still linear. Because it’s not enough to make a product of somewhat recycled materials. You need to have the full circle. And then, we can talk about having an impact on our biodiversity and climate. In general, everyone is doing business as usual. And the direction remains profit, profit, profit.

As the first b-corp-certified furniture company in Europe and Scandinavia, can you describe the process of obtaining and maintaining this certification?

It takes work to obtain a B-Corp certification. There’s a lot of hard work documenting everything that you are doing. But for us, we were born B-Corp, born circular, where people, the planet and a circular model were always our primary focus. People and the planet have a veto right in everything we do. Profit is, of course, nice because otherwise we wouldn’t be here.

What benefits has the B-corps accreditations brought to your company?

We chose to become a B-Corp even before we hit the market. When you enter the market claiming to be sustainable, circular, and better than the rest, it’s always a good idea to have some form of certification on your back. But then again, we also need to talk about certifications in general. Because it’s ended up being an incomprehensible jungle of labels. Certifications are, after all, businesses that need to make money to function.

It can be hard or very expensive for small companies to have all these certifications. We here at Wehlers could easily go for a ‘cradle to cradle’, an ‘EU flower’ or other labels. But it’s quite expensive. B-Corps, I believe, is a fair certification where you pay in relation to your company size. And it’s also a holistic certification. So they are not only verifying your product and its impact but also to what extent you are fairly paying your employees, all of which are important factors to consider. It is also a better guarantee that the suppliers don’t pollute the river in your backyard.

Recently, companies such as Danon received the B-Corp certificate, yet only one part of the company is technically certified – What happens to the rest? This is very progressive, of course, but it still has to be considered. In my opinion, in order to get somewhere, we need to include these big companies, their CEOs, our politicians and customers. All of these elements must work together. Especially us, as customers, we have a lot of power over where we put our money.

What challenges have you faced in encouraging other businesses and individuals to adopt sustainable practices?

In the beginning, we were often facing those who felt that climate change was not necessarily their fault. But that’s not today; today, everyone knows and actually can feel it in their own bodies that things are changing.

One of the hurdles is when having these big discussions about climate and biodiversity and the changes that we need to make as individuals, not only on the government level. People tend to feel the need to defend themselves as though they are being ‘accused’. Placing blame on ourselves or on others is burdening and unnecessary.

It’s important to realize that we can all do a little something and consequently understand the big picture.

Is this environmentally conscious mindset shared here in Copenhagen or in Denmark as a whole?

No, we have just started scratching the surface, literally. And I think that’s part of our biggest problem in this change process that we need to go through because our politicians have been very busy telling us all that we are so great, we are so green, we are a leading country, and we’re not. Denmark, by mid-March, has used all the resources this planet has to offer. So, for the rest of the year, it is overconsumption.

If we in tiny Denmark do something, it does have an impact. And that’s another thing that, as individuals, we must understand: we believe that we are only small and need all of the world… What we do in Denmark does matter because we are a country using too many resources. In Denmark, we are 4% circular. That means that 96% of what we consume is virgin materials, and they are not recycled or reused. It just ends up in landfills and incineration. We have a long way to go on that agenda. But acting, be it on an individual scale or as a country, the impact can be extraordinary.

What is the role of government policies or industry regulations in promoting sustainability within the business landscape?

People and the planet need to have a veto right in everything businesses do. And it’s coming because the EU is regulating these areas as we speak. And actually, very recently, the EU voted for and finalised the ‘eco-design’ directive. Beginning with the fashion industry and soon to be the furniture industry. Although they are starting with the fashion industry, all companies have to apply for this new directive. They have, I think, 18 months to correct their policies; otherwise, they are not allowed to import and sell. They are beginning with the big companies in this corporate sustainability reporting directive. However, ‘we’ need to apply as well because otherwise we will not be able to sell furniture to other companies. As of the upcoming year, these larger firms must report their emissions and drastically reduce them to meet new EU standards.

Another interesting thing is that the Danish government and the EU have actually started to pursue bigger corporations. They are looking into punishing companies that have had a significant impact on their CO2 emissions. How will they prevent them from doing harm? I am not sure.

Can you share insights into the design process at Wehlers and how the chair’s realisation came to life?

Our chair is designed by C.F. Møller Arkitekter. We make a design brief, sit together, and ‘begin with the end’, so to speak. So everything we do is designed for disassembly and is made with different kinds of waste streams. We were actually the first ones to hit the market with a chair made out of recycled fishing nets. The reason for this was that we had an old colleague working with Plastix in Lemvig, Denmark; they suggested that we collaborate. Initially, since it was plastic, we were not convinced – however, he suggested using plastic waste from the oceans. We liked the idea; we were funded by Innobooster and developed the technology to mould the first chair. The fishing net comes from both NGOs that collect them from coastal areas and also from The Ocean Cleanup organisation. Fishermen return their nets to the Plastix plant up in the northern part of Jutland.

The reason why we started developing this chair was that when we hit the market back in 2017, retailers, although interested in our story, were not interested in the product. On the other hand, architects were, and they understood what we were trying to achieve. They saw an opportunity to use recycled materials in both exterior and interior building design. And that’s how the R.U.M chair got developed into a chair that can be anything. It comes with an upholstered seat, an armrest, a barstool, wheels and so on. It can be made for the outdoors and indoors, so it’s flexible. A lot of customers were asking about colours. But since we are circular, we don’t add colour.

In my opinion, when you add something, the amount of recycled materials gets lower and lower. Adding chalk, glass, fibre trees, and virgin plastic is never going to happen with us. So we keep the waste stream clean so that we can recycle it again and again and again and keep it in use.

In order to propose another colour, we chose to tap into a new waste stream. So beginning with the e-waste from printers, computers, televisions, and other kinds of plastic types, all of which are black with no added colour either. And now, we have started using another new waste stream, which is made from insulin pins. The insulin pin is made from glass; there are also some metal and plastic parts.

So the chair is made from plastic parts consisting of insulin pins; all of this is mixed together and ends up with the final (quite appealing Green/Blue) colour. Our colours are created through the waste materials that we have combined – somewhat unpredictable but still beautiful. Each chair also retains the marks from the injection moulding, which adds to its character.

There’s always variation in our chairs. And that’s something we also need to get used to, the imperfect opportunities of furniture with character.

The furniture industry is subject to changing consumer preferences and market trends. How does Wehlers adapt to these changes while maintaining its commitment to sustainable practices? Do you have any strategies to cope with this?

The thing is that in furniture, it’s all also ended up being ‘buy-to-throw-away furniture’. Fast fashion within furniture. That’s definitely a thing. And that’s not what we do. We might alter the colours of the base or via waste streams, but that’s it. Our chairs are created to last. Designed for disassembly and without waste, a circularity that guarantees that it will never end up in a landfill or for incineration.

We will never be able to stop our consumption because it’s something that is grounded so deep within us humans. Originally, it was about survival and going hunting, but now that has transferred to hunting in stores.

How do you foresee the evolving landscape of sustainable design? Do you see any opportunities or challenges?

The EU is introducing new regulations that will impose higher standards on companies. These changes will push organisations to become more environmentally and socially responsible.

The documentation processes should be stricter for companies that are not taking the necessary steps to protect the climate, biodiversity, and their employees. We should encourage those who are falling short to document their processes and improve their practices.

As I see it, we have a spot in time right now where we have so many companies that haven’t even started. So, right now, we really need to go out and put down our flag because we’re there already. For instance, in these large corporate organisations, if they are buying chairs for their new offices, they could buy ours. That would be a very easy way to improve their impact on the climate.

What is Wehlers biggest obstacle today?

Our size, we are only two. It’s difficult; we are still a small company trying to change the furniture industry for good.

What are some personal habits that you maintain to stay connected with nature?

To pull the plug sometimes. It’s not easy having your own company; you always need to be accessible. We often seek solace in nature to recharge and reconnect. Our minds are not meant for the fast-paced environments we are subjected to daily. If you’re working in this kind of line of work, it’s important to remember why you are doing it in the first place – to avoid losing focus on what truly matters.

Can you share a fond memory that has inspired your journey to protect our planet?

Having kids. Having kids was, for me, the craziest eye-opener of wanting to leave this planet better than how I got it. The point is that I am doing it for my kids. One day, they will ask, ‘Why didn’t I do anything?’ I really want to be able to answer that I really tried. But my naive self hopes that they will instead ask me, ‘How did I do it?’