Designed by Pentagram, our new sustainability supplement is the meeting point between fashion, design and climate change

To say that sustainability has a become a buzzword recently would be an understatement. We wanted to take this opportunity to cut through some of the noise around the subject, to reflect on its importance, and to better understand what it means in practice. Let’s be honest, the worlds of luxury and fashion are not synonymous with radical action. However, some companies are pushing harder than others: We wanted to tell their stories, and to highlight the places where work needs to be done. In 413’s pages – ably designed by Astrid Stavro and her Pentagram team – you will find insights into some of the most progressive brands around, rolling their sleeves up and speaking openly about the challenges they face. We also talk to industry innovators – the great minds revolutionising their fields in the face of threatening climate breakdown.

Bespoke typeface is a collaboration with Pentagram partner Sascha Lobe

All reputable sources vouch that we have now passed the opportunity to rectify climate change, and are into the period in which we must commit to immediate and permanent action for damage limitation. Back when we conceived this publication, the atmospheric carbon parts per million were still 413 – hence the name (some reads now put the figure closer to 417 ppm) – and Corona just meant a chilled larger. We knew the world was changing, but we didn’t know quite how fast…

The global pandemic has brought with it a wave of soul-searching. If humans have one chance to change track, this is surely it. In our Opinion section we look at some of the beautiful, urgent and profound about-face thinking needed to make this happen. There’s no denying that researching for this supplement has at times been harrowing. We’re eternally grateful to Christiana Figueres and Tom Rivett-Carnac for writing their wonderful, recently released book, The Future We Choose, an extract from which you can read here. We discovered it halfway through the process and was relieved to find it brimming with pragmatic, realistic optimism. As they say of climate change: “We are still, just barely, inside a zone where we can stave off the worst and manage the remaining long-term effects. But only if we do what is required of us in the short term. This is the last time in history when we will be able to do this.”

Taking the form of a large, vertical newspaper, it is printed on 100% recycled stock. With no binding or glue holding the folded pages together, it is also 100% recyclable

Above all, we hope 413 leaves you feeling energised. The situation we face now is so critical that every choice, however big or small, of every company and every individual, matters more, not less. What is needed is the courage to face the harsh truth of our predicament, alongside the motivation to act immediately. With these things, as our contributors remind us, we are far from powerless.

To enjoy environmentally symbiotic homes, recycled chairs and ecofeminism, alongside writing by Christiana Figueres and Deyan Sudjic, buy issue 26 and 413

Supply and Demand

Supply chain mapping company Sourcemap is at the forefront of the drive to ensure consumers know the backstory of their consumption, at unprecedented levels of detail

The naïve runaway consumerism of the latter stages of the last century is grinding to a halt. While we may be shopping and curating our lives more than ever, our erstwhile bubble-like pseudo-reality – in which products dropped, gleaming, from the heavens on to the shelves of our favourite store – is bursting. Buyers are wising up to the fact that every product has a backstory – indeed, that most products are not singular items at all, but composites of several parts, each with their own journey and ethical footprint. Slowly but surely, words like ‘traceability’ and ‘transparency’ are becoming central to the worlds of production and commerce.

Integral to this changing mood is supply chain mapping – the charting of the pathways of an item, from the sourcing of its most elementary parts through to sale. While this process can simply be a tool for optimising commercial output, it is increasingly being used by ethically minded companies to track and prove to their customer base – and to themselves – that all of their facets adhere to their brand values. Leonardo Bonanni, CEO of New York-based supply chain-mapping startup Sourcemap describes the changing tide: “Ten years ago industries often weren’t accounting for their supply chains. Now we have hundreds of thousands of farms and factories being directly accounted for by our customers, so what’s happening is tremendous in terms of real accountability that nobody thought anybody would want when I started.”

Sourcemap is distinct in the granular level of detail it allows users to upload to the interface, which is important in moving beyond rudimentary benchmarks of sustainability and ‘fair trading’, “even down to individual households and villages in producing areas, because users have been working with us for years to get that visibility,” Bonanni explains. “With that connection to the producing area, they can collect information on all the factors that influence, for example, child labour, availability of schools, water, health clinics, household incomes, work forces.” The potential real- Material supplier term benefits of enabling organisations to Textile Mill monitor factors outside of their usual narrow Distribution Centre remit are obvious, from both environmental Factory and humanitarian perspectives.

Infographic by Catalogtree. Artist’s impression of sections of a Sourcemap supply chain map for Icebreaker’s 260 Tech Long Sleeve Crewe

And increasingly, as shoppers become savvier, the effort is paying off. As Bonanni says: “More and more brands that can show to consumers they’ve taken the care to trace their products are able to command a better price.” It’s a benefit that is being mirrored throughout a supply chain, at each stage of production. “Fashion brands are leading the way on this now. Companies like VF and H&M are really going into detail; not just publishing a pdf with a list of factories, but really showing you, for a given product, the facilities where it was made.”

Now that the world finds itself gripped by a pandemic, the issue of supply disruption has never been more pertinent, finding Sourcemap providing an increasingly crucial service: “Every company now wishes they had a complete end-to-end supply chain map. It’s not just the private sector either: Cities, states and national governments are seeking to better map production and inventory so that they can make critical resources available those who need them.” 

Clearly transparency is the way forward.

Reinventing the Chair

Do second lives always need to mean second best? Emeco has made pioneering efforts to turn recycled materials into high-end, high-quality design items, joining forces with some of the biggest names in the industry along the way

Photography Eleonora Agostini

The tracker on the Electric Machine and Equipment Company (Emeco) website keeps a real-time count of the number of plastic bottles that owner Gregg Buchbinder has already saved from landfill. Last time I looked, the total had reached an impressive 37,391,344 bottles. So far, most have been used in producing the 111 Navy Chair. Except for the range of saturated colours, it looks exactly like Emeco’s first product: the original, natural-aluminium-finish Navy Chair, which has been in continuous production since 1944. Because it is 65 per cent plastic, the product of 111 recycled bottles, reinforced by a mix of 35 per cent glass fibre, it is also a little heavier than the exceptionally light all-aluminium original.

Coca-Cola approached Emeco about working together on a chair at the recommendation of MoMA’s design curator Paola Antonelli. Buchbinder had to be convinced that he was being asked to take part in a worthwhile project, rather than a marketing exercise. “I was not interested in doing something promotional,” he says. “They said ‘No, it’s not about marketing. One trillion bottles ending up in landfill every year is a real problem for us.’” As it has turned out, this project has made Emeco a pioneer in the use of recycled plastic to make furniture, matching its expertise in aluminium.

To signal continuity, Buchbinder chose to make the new piece in the form of the Navy Chair. “I did not want it to be about cosmetic style. Furniture is not about fashion.” He was also making the point that creating things to last depends on how they look as well as what they are made of.

Though polyethylene terephthalate (PET), the plastic used to make bottles, is widely recycled, it is mostly for lower-grade products such as carpet. Using it in an armchair retailing for 400 dollars was an altogether different proposition; it meant finding a way to turn unpromising-looking flakes of recycled pet into a material that is both strong and attractive enough for furniture. It took four years for BASF’s chemists working with Emeco to produce the right mix of recycled plastic, fibreglass reinforcement and a non-toxic dye as the basis for a hollow one-piece injection- moulded chair.

Recycling is an essential part of Emeco’s origin story. When it won its first contract to supply the navy with indestructible chairs in 1944, it had little choice but to use recycled aluminium given wartime shortages and priorities. The Navy Chair is still made from recycled aluminium, which now has the virtue of using 95 per cent less electricity to manufacture than the virgin material.

Emeco built a 150,000-square-foot factory in Pennsylvania, employing 600 workers at its height. Every month a special train would pull up on the track that went right inside to load up 10,000 chairs at a time; they went to the giant Newport News shipyard in Virginia, and other ship building towns, for installation aboard naval vessels of every description. The end of the Cold War shredded Emeco’s order book. By the time Buchbinder took over in 1998, Emeco was in serious danger of going broke. Saving the company has been an all-consuming mission for him. With that accomplished, he has made Emeco do all it can to demonstrate how furniture manufacturers can contribute towards a sustainable economy.

“The back story is that I grew up in Huntington Beach in California and went surfing as much as I could. I had a deep connection with the ocean; you see dolphins and sea birds, and I still go as much as I can. But the la rivers are basically a storm drain, and after it rains, it’s like surfing in a toilet. It made me very conscious of environmental issues.

“My whole life has been furniture,” says Buchbinder, “My dad was an engineer. He worked for Herman Miller on the understructures for the Eames Lounge Chair. My mother was an interior designer so we got Domus magazine at home, and I knew about Ettore Sottsass.”

Buchbinder’s strategy was to move away from institutional clients to target the design market. He had a couple of useful customers that helped. Terence Conran was buying container-loads of the Navy Chair to sell in Habitat. In the us, Ian Schrager put in a large order of Navy Chairs for the Paramount Hotel in New York. Philippe Starck gave them an entirely new character with a slip cover on which was a silk-screened image of an axe. The navy might not have liked to see its chair dressed in drag, but Buchbinder was impressed.

When the two met, Starck, who had assumed that Emeco belonged to “a bunch of old army guys”, immediately offered to design something for the company. Buchbinder, struggling to meet his payroll bill at the time, confessed that he was not in a position to pay. Starck was undeterred. “‘We don’t want to do anything gimmicky; we can’t just put horns on it,’ I said to him. ‘No, I am just going to wash the details and make it more neutral,’ Starck said.”

The result was the Hudson Chair, a subtle refraction of the form of the Navy Chair as seen through Starck’s own aesthetic. Its roots are clear, but it’s softer, and no longer carries the visual memories of the American industrial vernacular. Starck refined the chair by specifying a mirror-polished surface. It was a technique that turned out to be beyond Emeco’s manufacturing capabilities at the time. “Our neighbour in Pennsylvania is Harley-Davidson, and they are big on polishing. Their big burly guys took the chair and made it shine. All of a sudden it looks like jewellery.”

“Starck put us on the radar. From then on, we could work with Jean Nouvel, Frank Gehry, Norman Foster, anybody we wanted.

But it was Jasper Morrison, who has been designing for Emeco since 2017, who turned out to be the next important changing point. Morrison was reluctant to design anything until he got to know the company. “He spent a long time at the factory. He understood us. He focused on who we are. I was impressed by his ability to see simple things that had such value.”

Morrison’s first range, Alfi, uses a seat and back made entirely from recycled materials, a mix of waste polypropylene and waste sawdust. The legs are made from ash salvaged from local forests ravaged by ash dieback disease, a timber once used to make baseball bats.

Emeco describes Morrison’s next project, the one-inch aluminium-frame chair as “age proof, weatherproof and trend proof ”. Buchbinder calls it his favourite: “It’s made in the same way as the Navy Chair. It is so simple you really can’t tell when it was designed – if it was in the 1940s or 1980s, or now.”

Emeco remains an unusual company driven by a single-minded sense of purpose.

“When we work with a designer on a new project, they have our full and complete attention. We put our total effort into it for a couple of years. Everyone from the shop floor to engineering is involved. When we have so much wrapped up in tooling, we can invest 1 million dollars, it has to be this way. We don’t do more than one new launch a year.”

This year’s new range, On and On, is designed by Barber Osgerby, the designers of the torch for the London Olympics. It’s a stacking café chair made from a more advanced version of the recycled pet material used for the 111 Navy, capable of being reused indefinitely. It’s already boosting Buchbinder’s online count of plastic bottles saved from landfill.