Having gained international attention on the British television show Dragon’s Den, Robert Milder, CEO of Van de Sant recently sat down with Northern Times contributor Thomas Ansell to hear about his experiences as an entrepreneur in the north with an international scope and the future of manufacturing.
The Northern Times: So, Robert, lots of people will have seen you on “Dragon’s Den”, but for those that haven’t, how did you get into designing, making, and selling sustainable furniture?
Robert Milder: I worked in the USA and some of the Caribbean islands previously, and my background is in design. When visiting various islands, I noticed the amount and variety of plastic waste that washes up consistently on the shore. I wondered if there could be a sustainable business that created aesthetic furniture, but using only recycled materials – and here we are, some years later!
TNT: Would you say that Van de Sant is specifically eco-friendly? How does this balance with designing good-looking furniture?
Milder: The eco-friendly nature of Van de Sant is a reflection of the people behind it: I try to live as “circular” of a lifestyle as possible, such as using an electric car and being conscious of my effect on the environment in everyday life. We don’t use business cards, nor do we use paper in the office, where possible. We don’t see there being an issue with making something sustainable and beautiful! One of my favourite designers is Philippe Starck, who can make one piece of base material look weightless, and elegantly formed. Recycled materials can be made to look how we want: they certainly don’t limit the aesthetic quality of the furniture that is produced.
TNT: And how is this reflected in the furniture?
Milder: Naturally, making the furniture from recycled materials is a start to achieving circularity, but we are trying to make our manufacturing methods as non-wasteful as we can. We construct the furniture in Emmen, and since we have a few large clients coming on-board, we will look to expand into a factory that includes solar-power, minimising waste, and with maximised energy efficiency. The supply chain is important in creating an eco-friendly product; were we to start working in, say, the US, we would prefer to build locally. Not only does this cut down on unnecessary travel emissions, but it could also help places that have pollution problems make something from the rubbish.
TNT: What’s it like being an entrepreneur in the north?
Milder: The local authority in Emmen have been helpful, and keen to support our expansion. The transport connections are equally good, and have helped us reach customers whilst minimising our environmental impact and keeping delivery times quick. It’s good that the municipality and the province lead by example, and exemplify the circular economy. Naturally, the issue can be pushed even further, but this is a good start! Innovative companies can really help make initiatives like a circular economy work.
TNT: Where would you like to see Van de Sant in 10 years?
Milder: Well, we’d like to be the leaders in sustainable furniture, and have worldwide sales. Beyond that, I hope that we inspire and lead a move towards more sustainability in business. I’d love for us to work with a well-known design figure, not just for their style and cache, but also because it will help focus attention on using recycled materials.
TNT: How can we be more sustainable?
Milder: It’s really about making sure everyone knows how sustainability and circularity can work: recycled materials can be used in nearly everything, without a huge upheaval to the manufacturing system. Also, lots of things that we barely think about can be made sustainable with some ease; we are working with another Dutch company (HR Group) to make road signs that have bamboo poles and recycled plastic faces. We’re also working with Meis Architects to create recycled plastic stadium seating. You might not think to make something as basic as road signs or stadium seats more eco-friendly, but there are so many that it will have an impact. Basically, actions are the important thing, and including recycled materials in whatever way we can is our contribution. We’re constantly told of the danger to the environment of our current lifestyles, so now really is the time for action.
Photo source: Van de Sant