The circular economy is a proposed alternative to our traditional ‘take, make, waste’ model of production and consumption – one that offers hope in the face of environmental catastrophes from climate change to ocean plastic. Designing out waste and pollution, keeping materials and products in use and regenerating our natural environment are so important to contemporary design that we wanted to create a dedicated space for the projects bringing these ideas to life. Circular by Design, a new fortnightly column by longtime contributor Katie Treggiden, will start by exploring the potential of waste as a valuable new raw material.
Caitlin Ellen and Phantila Phataraprasit founded Sabai Design (Sabai is the Thai word for “comfortable” or “cozy”) when they spotted a gap in the market for a sofa that looked good, aligned with their sustainability values, and was affordable enough for someone setting up a home for the first time. They launched two sofas and an ottoman with a range of fabric options (the velvet is made from 100% recycled PET bottles) and a ‘closed-loop promise’, which guarantees they will buy back their sofas (from New York customers, at 20% cost, within three years of purchase) to keep them out of landfill sites. We caught up with Ellen to find out more.
Tell me a little bit about your childhoods, education, and backgrounds in terms of how you first became interested in creativity, design, and sustainability.
Our childhoods were both rooted in creative exploration. Growing up, Phantila and I both were very big fans of arts and crafts – from making collages to drawing and knitting, we tried it all on opposite sides of the world. Phantila is from Thailand, while I grew up outside of DC, and I think that desire to be creative and explore the unknown that has been in both of us from an early age. This underlying interest was able to grow after we began to explore sustainability and entrepreneurship at college. We met when we worked together on an initiative to bring a credit union to campus and found we were both incredibly excited and fulfilled by the mental creativity required to build something from the ground up. During our senior year, we lived in a shared house where we began to tap into what it meant to live a sustainable lifestyle. We started by incorporating it into our food choices (one of the biggest ways to have an impact on the environment) and then started building it out to all facets of our lives. It was this exploration that brought us to sofas – we began to wonder how could we make something new that reflected our desire to showcase our commitment to sustainability in our home. It was serendipitous that our sustainability and entrepreneurship journey brought us back to our creative roots and our inherent desire to design something new for the world.
How would you describe the Essential Collection?
The Essential Collection is intended to be essential for every home. We designed the pieces using a combination of our own design tastes and aspirations, and our community’s feedback. With simple customizations through the cushion style, legs, and fabrics, we wanted the sofa’s aesthetic to be easy to individualize while looking at home in any space. In addition to its universal appeal, sustainability is the core of the product. We have used upcycled, recycled, and natural materials to create a product that minimizes its impact on the earth.
What inspired this project?
Buying with intention, not buying what we didn’t need, and shopping more sustainably were so important to us when we moved into our first apartment, but as we looked at our options, there didn’t seem to be a good first-hand sustainable furniture choice we could make. All of the sustainable sofas on the market were way out of our price range. Sofas are among the largest purchases a young person will make, and we wanted people to feel better about their options than we did. So we decided to make the sofa we wish had existed when we were furnishing our apartment.
What waste (and other) materials are you using, how did you select that particular material, and how do you source it?
We use FSC-certified wood, CertiPUR-US certified foam, recycled fibers for the pillows, and offer three types of fabric. Our upcycled fabric is made from a byproduct of refining petroleum and, while synthetic, actually performs better than many natural fibers on the Higg index as it does not require any land or water in its production (even in the dyeing process). It is also inherently stain-resistant and therefore does not have any treatments. For those that want a bit of pop, we offer a recycled velvet that is made from 100% recycled water bottles. Lastly, for those who prefer a natural offering, we have a cotton fabric as well. Our biggest priority in sourcing our materials was balancing our sustainability mandate with affordability. We wanted the product to be as accessible as possible so that more people would be able to make a sustainable choice. That meant doing a lot of industry research into best practices with regards to recycled, upcycled, and natural materials for each component of the couch, as well as testing materials. It took over a year to cultivate our unique network of sustainable suppliers.
When did you first become interested in using waste as raw material and what motivated this decision?
We always had our heart set on using waste – where it made sense. For us, that was tied in very closely with parts of the sofa that are typically made from plastic. We wanted to minimize our contribution to the creation of virgin polyester or plastics, which brought us to find our recycled velvet and our recycled pillow fibers. Beyond that, waste was and continues to be weighed as a potential option for each material in the piece, but it is not always cost-effective or safe. As innovations occur in the field, we want to make sure that we are on the forefront of waste transformation and designing for extended lifecycles.
What processes does the material have to undergo to become the finished product?
We try to minimize the amount of processes our materials undergo, especially with off-gassing concerns top of mind. Our recycled materials, such as our velvet, are converted from post-consumer water bottles. These water bottles are shredded and extruded to create a fiber that is woven into yarn and used to create our fabrics. Our recycled and upcycled fabrics have no treatments as they are inherently stain resistant. We use a water-based glue with zero VOCs as well as mechanical fasteners to upholster our products. Lastly, our boxes are made from 100% recycled content.
What happens to your products at the end of their life – can they go back into the circular economy?
Because our sofas are made up of assemblable and disassemblable parts, the product is built so that pieces can be recycled and replaced. One of the areas in which we are looking to really innovate in the future is the end of life. Upholstery is centered around the use of glue to adhere fabrics and fibers, but that glue precludes some pieces from being recycled. We are currently developing best practices to avoid and minimize glue in order to increase the percentage of the product that can go back into the circular economy and enjoy a second, third, or fourth life. In the meantime, we are also focusing on the “repair, don’t replace” aspect of the piece, so that we can keep the pieces in homes as long as possible.
How did you feel the first time you saw the transformation from waste material to product/prototype?
It really was incredible. There can be a negative stereotype around sustainable products at times – that they will look or feel a certain way. To make a sustainably sourced product that looked high end and would be beautiful in any home felt incredibly satisfying. And that was in addition to the overall joy of seeing our visions come to life! Just two years after having the initial idea, being able to see the fruits of our labors – the designing, the sourcing, and the building of a business from the ground up, all culminating in our initial prototype was certainly one of the most memorable and exciting days of my life.
How have people reacted to this project?
People have been so wonderful and incredibly supportive. We have heard and learned so much from our customers along the way, which has informed a lot of Sabai’s direction over the past 12 months. We’ve felt quite confident going full steam ahead because our base has really been vocal in affirming that this is something they would like to see in the world. Also, our customers have been our best teachers at times when it comes to their hopes for our sustainable practices in the future.
How do you feel opinions towards waste as a raw material are changing?
I think there is interest in recycled materials, but one hurdle is the misinformation around the “unnatural nature” of waste as a raw material. Many consumers are concerned with the health risks or the feel and look of recycled or upcycled materials. I think the tide is changing and consumers are becoming more comfortable with second-life materials, especially as education around this increases. However, it definitely takes work to inform the public that there need not be any health or design compromises when it comes to using waste as a raw material.
What do you think the future holds for waste as a raw material?
I think there is so much potential in this space. One thing that I would like to see is the movement of recycling plants to the US, and the further innovation in repurposing waste as raw materials in more cost-sensitive and accessible ways. Recycled and upcycled materials are not the norm for most offerings in the US yet, and a large part of that is that we do not have the same capabilities as other countries to reform that waste. I would love to see more recycling plants that allow for the radical transformation of our waste in a way that enables it to permeate the culture as a raw material. When that becomes the norm, it will have a snowball effect as the supply will allow for it to become more accessible and mainstream – educating the consumer to the possibilities and only further increasing demand.