How long have you been working in sustainability at Ahrend?
More or less from the start. I’ve been working here for almost thirty years and was initially responsible for production and engineering. We wanted to manufacture more but our factory was in the centre of Sint-Oedenrode. There were smells, noise and too many vehicles driving through the village. It was becoming unsustainable for us to be there. We dealt with the problems at source by improving the buildings and production processes, investing in new machinery and using cleaner coatings, always involving every member of staff in the change process.
We have continued this sustainability drive: we are continuing to reduce CO2, consume hardly any water and handle waste with care. Sustainability and circularity are fashionable now, but we were well ahead of our time. The village was the catalyst.
‘If a product no longer has a use, I want us to be able to transform it easily.’
What makes a product or an environment sustainable?
Making a sustainable Ahrend product is, actually, almost an impossible task. The design has to be timeless in terms of style, functionality and ergonomics. We have to be able to reuse the materials and it shouldn’t cost too much either. So you are constantly asking yourself: how can we make the best possible product with the least amount of material?
Ahrend is a Cradle to Cradle company. This means that we use only materials that are healthy for people and the environment and we ensure that nothing ends up at the rubbish tip. If a product no longer has a use, I want us to be able to transform it easily. For example, a couple of old desks can be turned into a new conference table. That’s good for the client and for the environment. The easier it is to do that, the more value our products retain.
Where do you find your inspiration?
Everywhere. Nature is an important source of inspiration, as it can make the most beautiful things grow with a minimum of material and energy. That to me is a beautiful starting point. And I’m very curious. I like to know how things work, but also what drives people, or indeed hinders them. I’m always looking for the question behind the question and try to make sense of everything. From that starting point, I identify possibilities for new ideas and products. We demonstrate these ideas in the InnovationLAB and gain valuable feedback from our own organisation and our clients.
There’s a lot of expertise at Ahrend but we can always learn more. So we are prepared to initiate cross-industry partnerships, with Auping for example. We learn a huge amount from each other. And from our partnerships with colleges and universities. We coach a large number of students every year. We give them a problem to solve, and end up with all kinds of solutions you’d never have thought of yourself, and that’s fantastic to see. Some of these students end up working for us too, so it works both ways.
‘Nature can make the most beautiful things grow with a minimum of material and energy.’
How will our work environment change over the next 125 years?
The coronavirus pandemic has shown us all how quickly change can happen. Hybrid working is on the rise; we work where it suits us best. That will soon be possible everywhere. Not only in offices or homes, but also in hubs, spread throughout the country. Or in a self-driving car. Everything is possible, as long as the work environment supports a healthy and vital life.
For us, it’s very important to keep up with technological developments, because time goes by faster than you think. For example, the iPhone has only been on the market for a relatively short time, and now we’re about to take the first steps into the Metaverse, Facebook’s new digital world. But no matter how much you can do with technology, it can’t replace all aspects of the creative or innovative process. People are still hugely important. And in an ageing society, we have to deal with that in a very efficient way.
‘For a sustainable future, you need the expertise of the whole organisation.’
What are you most proud of in your job?
That we really work together at Ahrend. That energises me. You can’t do this work alone. For a sustainable future, you need the expertise of the whole organisation, from production workers to the management, as well as help from scientific research and chain partners with the same pioneering vision and attitude.
Ultimately, I’m not doing all this for myself. I do it for the people around me, both faraway and nearby. For our organisation and the people who work hard and want a decent and beautiful future. I do it for the planet. I feel a responsibility for that. We all work every day to create a healthier future and a nicer place to live.