Stef Kranendijk, CEO of Desso – one of Europe’s leading carpet tiles manufacturers – has decided his company would have fully closed the loop by 2020. A convincing advocate of the Cradle to Cradle philosophy, he regularly addresses business leaders and government representatives to promote a model that, he says, “is good for people and the planet, but as experience has proven already, is also very good for business”.
With roughly 600 000 tonnes of floor covering material being thrown away each year in the UK, and only 1% of that total recycled (1), it’s easy to understand that this particular industry has a tremendous impact and a key role to play in the future. Desso’s Stef Kranendijk answered our questions about his company’s transition to closed loop and shared his view of the issue.
How did it all start, and why did you adopt the circular model?
“Desso became independent in April 2007. I immediately appointed a Sustainability Director, Rudi Daelmans, with the objective of assessing what we had been doing over the past decade and how we could make bigger steps. It was quite clear that the company was doing a lot already in terms of eco-efficiency: our energy consumption had gone down by 30% over 10 years, we recycled 95% of industrial waste and we had been very proactive in terms of reducing our water consumption, all of this within the context of a steeply rising production. Then during the autumn of 2007, I became aware of the Cradle to Cradle philosophy via a documentary made by a Dutch TV channel: at the time Desso was about to send its sustainability brochure to print, and I was so impressed by what I’d discovered that I added to the document a pledge to start developing products the Cradle to Cradle way. I got in touch with Michael Braungart directly and told him “I want my company to be completely C2C by 2020, all of our products, and I need the support of your institute to make it happen.” At first, he was wondering if I was being serious, but realised quickly that I really meant it. Since then, we’ve worked very closely.”
30 years ago, you could find eco-friendly products, but they were always very ugly. I believe good products should have it all, qualities in terms of performance and ingredients that can improve our clients’ well-being, but also stunning design and attractiveness.
In practical terms, we’re not talking about minor changes are we?
“Not at all. Switching to Cradle to Cradle is not an easy task as it involves phenomenal changes, it completely modifies the way you do business. It starts with raw materials, and in our case EPEA and MDBC (McDonough Braungart Chemistry) analysed what we worked with – we knew we would not be perfect from day 1, and setting a long-term goal is key to make significant progress. We decided to start with our biggest line of products, the carpet tiles. Analysis showed that some ingredients were fine, others just OK and we also found a couple of components that were not acceptable from a Cradle to Cradle point of view. So admitting this might sound like I’m shooting myself in the foot, yet the reality is that it’s the case for the whole market, but at least we’re prepared to do something about it. We’ve moved on faster than I expected and we’re already capable of offering almost 100% Cradle to Cradle carpet tiles made from pure materials that are safely up-cyclable. The yarn of these tiles will be depolymerised into caprolactam (a liquid normally made from virgin oil, from which high value plastics can be made, including new yarn). We also had to work on our backing material, which is bitumen-based – not as bad as PVC which can only be de-cycled, but still not great. To address that issue we have developed a totally new ingredient, a polyolefin that is completely Cradle to Cradle compliant: sure it’s a bit more expensive than bitumen, but 6, 8 or 10 years from now we’ll be able to recuperate and reuse it safely. These products exist, they’re on the market now, and in addition to that we have setup our own take-back system, otherwise the loop will never be closed.”
How does that work?
“Over the past 2 years we have developed unique equipment that processes old tiles, separating the yarn, which goes to one of our suppliers who has decided to follow our movement and invested into a de-polymerisation facility: with what they receive from us, they make new yarn for us, nothing is lost, it’s only transformed. For the tiles that still include bitumen, that material is separated and goes into road works, becomes cycle paths or serves as raw material for the cement industry. In the future, when we take back our polyolefin-backed tiles, sold under the name Eco Base, there will be no such dispersion as tile backing will become tile backing again. At the moment, in Germany old floor covering material is incinerated or becomes fuel for power plants, but in the UK and France it’s horrendous, the stuff just goes to landfill. So Desso’s take-back programme should have a tremendous impact there. We’re gradually making people understand that they should not consider that they’re stuck with the product. In France, it costs €120 to get rid of one tonne of carpet, so we tell customers ‘give us the €120 instead, and we’ll reprocess that carpet for you’. The idea is to become a service industry, relying on a leasing system: then you don’t buy the product, you only pay for its use, which means materials remain our responsibility and of course it’s not our interest to see them wasted, at the end everybody wins. It’s easier to implement with big businesses and obviously it will take a bit longer for the consumer market, the key is to have a plan as we can’t do everything in one go. So we started with the carpet tiles for offices and industry, then we will make our sports systems Cradle to Cradle, move to our woollen carpets – in that field, we’re working on a bio-degradable base made out of corn by-product – then we’ll tackle the consumer market. We also have experimented in the biosphere, notably making yarn from bamboo: once the carpet is worn, you can just throw it on the compost heap as it’s fully biodegradable. We still have to improve the product though, notably to enhance its durability.”
For the closed loop model to develop, it must be important to work in a context where it’s politically understood and encouraged…
“Absolutely right, its fundamental to have the authorities on our side if we want this to work. I personally presented myself to the Dutch government to explain what I was doing, as the idea is to start an intelligent collaboration. Imposing Cradle to Cradle by means of law will never work, and it’s not a positive way of doing things: if you do this, then all the big companies go to the ministry of economic affairs and complain that they’re losing their competitiveness against other countries because of the new ‘unfair’ regulations. That’s also why we’re talking to the European Commission, because some kind of general movement is necessary. Then again, municipalities and communities have a great role to play too, as we’ve seen in Holland and Belgium when cities have changed their procurement policies – they’re simply saying ‘all the stuff that we buy has to be Cradle to Cradle’. That is of course an enormous stimulus because the volume that goes through government and public markets is staggering, enough to make companies viable. Now the idea is not to depend on this, and I also want to tell other CEOs out there that Desso is gaining market shares everywhere, our profits haven’t stopped increasing over the past 4 years, even right through the economic crisis. The business model works and makes sense, we’ve gained a competitive edge whilst making better products, when in 2009 eight out of the ten biggest carpet manufacturers recorded considerable losses. The idea is not for me to brag, but to show that the Cradle to Cradle concept is highly credible. The good thing is that our success means that our competition will probably follow, and the concept will naturally spread. We also need to push for this model to be presented in schools and taught in universities, as what the future economy needs is creativeness and enthusiasm.”
The rules have changed, and when people from Desso go to big companies or institutions they don’t just show colour palettes and texture samples, they talk about CSR, sustainability, and always end up doing a little Cradle to Cradle presentation to show what we’re doing. I’d say that in 90% of cases, people are very impressed and see how we bring an added value…
80% of the company’s activity is carpet manufacturing, 20% is sports systems. The majority of the carpets produced by Desso goes to offices, and can be found in places like La Défense, the biggest Parisian business district, or Canary Wharf in London. The company also does a lot of woolen carpets for 5-star hotels and luxury cruise ships: about half of the cruise ships that sail around the world have Desso carpets. As far as the consumer market goes, Stef Kranendijk’s brand is leader in the Netherlands, and in the top 3 in Germany, Switzerland and Austria. On the sports systems market, Desso is the European leader in artificial turf pitches for football, field hockey and tennis – they’ve created Arsenal’s pitch, recently did Wembley and other major stadiums around the world, whilst being acknowledged by the FIFA as leaders in their sector.
Desso and energy
Stef Kranendijk: “We aim to use renewable energy in all stages of the cycle, which is another vital principle of the Cradle to Cradle concept. All the electricity we use in our Holland and Belgium plants come from hydropower, thus we do not use any fossil fuel-generated electricity there. Our energy providers have certified that, and we’ve double checked via an independent firm that the provider was being honest. We’re also investing in wind, solar, and we’ll be going into biomass and geothermal energy.”
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