I believe in starting a conversation with fellow leaders and learning from their experiences. Making their perspectives available to the whole community is one step forward in spreading the message about the importance of UX. That’s why I have started a project of #UXFika – lightweight conversations with inspiring UX leaders, creators, and people who make a change through design.

This week’s special UX Fika guest is Michael Stausholm – the Founder of Sprout World – the company behind the first pencil in the world that can be planted and grown into herbs, vegetables, and flowers.

Have you ever stopped to think about where products you use come from and what it’s journey will be once you stop using it? Take a pencil as an example. Well, Michael has made it his mission to not only produce eco-friendly pencils but also to give new life at the end of the pencil’s functional usability. That is a great example of sustainable design.

Worldwide awareness of environmental issues has ever been more acute. As designers, we have the power to dramatically alter how we interact with our environment. The question is how.

The material world that surrounds us – the products we buy, the brands we let in our lives, the way we move around cities – is consciously or unconsciously designed. That’s why I want to share my conversation with Michael – how things designed can have significant implications for sustainability.

How did you become interested in sustainability?

I have been living in Asia for many years and worked in a garment and textile industry, which is one of the most polluting industries overall. Actually it is the second only to oil as the world’s largest polluter. It emits 1.2 billion tons of CO2 equivalent per year.  That is more than the emissions created by air travel and international shipping.

I just started seeing how big companies can make things differently during the production stage and that’s how I got into the sustainability world. But one thing is how you approach supply chain, logistics and another thing is looking at what happens to products after using them. It doesn’t matter if you produce good plastic cups under good conditions in Vietnam – if these plastic cups are thrown away to the oceans. You need to look at the whole process and how you use products after they are used.  That’s what excites me.

How did “a pencil with big idea” came to your mind?

The idea originally came from young students from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Boston, USA. They were all robotic engineers who came up with an idea during the design course and put it on Kickstarter, where I discovered it and signed a contract to sell it and distribute it in Europe.

However it was going very very fast in Europe, and in late 2014 I have purchased all the global rights for the Sprout pencil. I was already working with companies about sustainability at that time. In early 2014s everyone was already talking about sustainability but it was very hard to define what it means for business. And to me, Sprout pencil was an amazing idea illustrating what sustainability is all about. Using a product and instead of throwing it out, you give it a new life by planting it. It is easy for both adults and kids to show what it is all about.

“What we do is not going to save the planet, but we try to inspire people and companies to see how they can do small things to make a big difference at the end”

I want to challenge the “use-and-chuck-away” culture which permeated the consumption pattern before the financial crisis made us more conscious of our consumption habits.

The initial sketch of Sprout Pencil and interaction with the product.

How do you build a customer-centric business?

80% of our business is selling to corporates to communicate their own sustainable messages and 20% is retail – to private consumers, so we work with customers in many different ways. We get a lot of feedback about how they plant the pencils, what is easy, what is difficult.

Incorporating user feedback into product development is not always easy. For example, one thing we learned about the seeds we are using is that the most important thing is for seeds to germinate fast. If it takes too long for the plant to grow, customers think it is not working. When we started, one of the seeds we were using was Rosemary, which is very popular in cooking, but it takes 4-6 weeks to germinate. So we had to innovate and focus on seeds that grow much faster. For example 5-10 days instead of weeks. That’s one example of how we incorporated user feedback.

On top of that, I also know that this pencil has a deeper purpose for people and businesses. It is a conversation starter and ice breaker – it opens up a discussion on what is sustainability, how can we live better, which is many times an intimidating topic for many of us. At the beginning it was just a product, today it is a way to inspire people, tell stories and explain sustainability.

What does sustainable design mean for you? What are the key pillars?

First and foremost, sustainable design is making a product as natural as possible. If you make a pencil with metal parts – it is not 100% sustainable, because not everything can be reused. So you need to develop something that is 100% natural.

Secondly, sustainable design is not about looks and materials – it is about creating products that could be reused afterward. There is no point in buying an organic T-shirt if you throw it out after 3 months and it ends up in the landfill. For me, it means what happens to the product afterward.

Do you think sustainable design has become a buzzword, misused in the wrong ways and for the wrong reasons?

You are completely right.  Green, organic, sustainable are all buzzwords. It is not very transparent anymore and it’s too easy to call something sustainable, but many companies cannot back it up. They do not have a plan nor reasoning. They just chase the trends.

How can design tackle the many issues currently facing the world?

The design really does matter. Not only in how we shape and order our world, but also in determining our impact on it. For example, we have just launched a new product – Sprout Spoon, which is an alternative to plastic spoons used when drinking tea or coffee. It is a fully biodegradable product. The intention behind this product is to replace the normal product. That for me is a way to tackle issues and find alternative solutions that leave no trace behind. If the design can replace materials that are not sustainable – it is better.

How do you feel the sustainable design is progressing? And where is it heading in the future?

For me, it is evolving very slowly. Slower than it should. The key problem with sustainable design replacing conventional design is price. It is usually more expensive.

Therefore retailers and companies are reluctant to change and replace plastic items. Unless consumers demand and require to replace it, or if they are forced to do it by the government. Like for example, the EU made a law to replace single-use plastics by 2021. That has forced a lot of companies to find other materials. Initiatives and decisions on a government level can make a big difference.

Which other projects do you consider exemplary of sustainable design?

There are many amazing examples. I have just been reading about Carlsberg brewery here in Denmark. When they produce six-packs of beer, plastic is normally used to hold them together.  And that is a huge waste problem because people drink a lot of beer.

What Carlsberg did was replace the plastic with a special glue that makes beer can stick together. That cause a spiral effect because another beer brand Corona has invented a way to hold cans together without any material at all. That is an amazing innovation. In addition to that, Corona has shared the patent behind this, so that all the breweries can use the technique together.

What would you advice to someone who would like to get into a sustainable business?

No matter if you are a startup or a corporate, the problem is that everyone thinks you must be 100% from the beginning. 100% is very hard to achieve when you are talking about products. You should understand that it is ok to be 75% to start with. As long as you have a plan on how to achieve it. I can give you a perfect example from Sprout. Originally when we started – all our production was in the USA but 90% of our market was in Europe. It was not very sustainable to ship products from the USA to Europe, but we were very open and honest about it because it was the only way to get started.  Our end goal was to produce primarily in Europe. Within 1,5 – 2 years we started producing in Europe and now 85-90% of our production is made here, where our main market is. You need to get started somewhere.

Extra bits

Recommended book:

Losing my Virginity by Richard Branson

Who inspires you?

Richard Branson is such an inspiration to me. He has managed to build a business while having a lot of fun. To me, it is very important to have fun while you do what you do. His daughter is also very big in sustainability and is a big inspiration to me.

Best career advice you have received?

Just jump into things. Don’t think too much. Don’t consider it too much. Just try things. When you are young – I see that young people have too many choices, you have too many options, so you start to wonder what to pick, what to do, what to study because you are afraid you will be stuck with it. I think it is important that you follow your heart.

About the UX Fika Series

In UX Fika series of blog posts, I talk with people that inspire me and whom I look up to as my role-models. The motivation behind doing this is, you might see some patterns and hopefully you’d be able to learn from the amazing people that I have had a chance of learning from.

For my international friends, FIKA is a Swedish concept, a state of mind, an attitude and an important part of Swedish culture. It means making time for friends and colleagues to share a cup of coffee (or tea). With no rush, full immersion and being present in the moment. That’s why I thought “UXFika” is a perfect name for meaningful conversation with UX leaders I look up to.

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