To switch from advising corporations such as Nike and Walmart on sustainability to being a pencil manufacturer might not be the most obvious of career shifts. But Michael Stausholm was so impressed by one particular pencil that he started selling it and then bought the rights to it.
Why? Because a Sproutworld pencil – developed at MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) – was the first pencil in the world that can, at the end of its life, be planted, giving rise to some Forget-Me-Nots, sage, or wildflowers. It’s less about the pencil, Stausholm says, so much as providing a talking point around a philosophy of ‘second life design’ – one he hopes to champion.
Since the company took root back in 2013, more than 30 million plantable pencils have been sold in over 80 countries and with a £5.7m turnover and offices in Copenhagen and Boston, Sproutworld is growing fast itself. That said, he’d rather we stopped using disposable plastic pens too….
The Ethicalist: How did you make the move from being a business consultant to getting involved with the Sproutworld start-up?
MS: Around 2010 it seemed as though everyone was talking about sustainability but nobody would really define what that meant. It’s a very fluffy expression and still is: what, in fact, is it? And it was while I was thinking about that that I came across these young students at MIT who had developed this pencil. I found them on Kickstarter when friends recommended I take a look at all the interesting things going on. This was when crowdfunding was starting to get popular and the money they’d raised from some 2000 people was a validation of the product in my mind.
TE: Superficially at least, it’s just a pencil. And some might see it as a gimmick. So what did you see in it?
MS: Sure, on one level it’s just a pencil with some seeds – what’s the big deal? But what really struck me about it was that it was a physical product that illustrated what sustainability is all about. You don’t just throw it out when you’re done but use it again for something entirely different – that’s something kids, and grown-ups, can understand. It took off fast precisely because it’s such a simple product but one that tells a story. We sold to retail to start with but the corporate world got onto it – so they could communicate their sustainability projects – and that’s when it really took off. It’s an ice-breaker. A lot of companies still hand out plastic pens to their customers which end up in a drawer or, worse, in the trash. But a Sprout pencil immediately starts a conversation about sustainability. And you’d be surprised at what demand there is for pencils still – I certainly was. There are 15 billion pencils made and sold every year globally, so people still use them including kids, of course, which is why we make coloured pencils, but also artists and architects and so on. It’s an old school thing but one that a lot of people still turn to even in the age of smartphones. Studies have proven that when you take notes with pencil you remember it much better than you do when recording electronically.
TE: You made the move not just to sell Sproutworld pencils but to buy the patent too. What led to that decision?
MS: At the start around 90 per cent of the sales were in Europe and made by me, working on a royalty deal. The students behind the idea were actually students of robotics and were more interested in building a robot to make pencils you could plant than the pencils themselves. Of course, the more I sold, the more valuable the rights became – which was a bad deal for me. So in the end I purchased the rights to the patent outright. That’s what allowed Sproutworld to build as a brand, bring in big customers the likes of IKEA and Disney, who otherwise could just make their own version. We co-brand with them – we don’t make private label pencils for them.
TE: Sproutworld is a striking example of the philosophy of the design of products to give them a second life. Do you see this way of thinking expanding?
MS: I think the same philosophy could be applied to other products and I hope we inspire manufacturers to think again about what they make, and, importantly, not just how they’re made and used, but how they’re disposed of. The sustainability focus tends to be more and more on how products are made but the bigger problem is what we do with them when we’re done with them. We need to think more about bio-degradable materials, being able to take products apart, giving them a second use and so on. I think there’s more attention being paid to this, not least because consumers are demanding it, as we’ve seen for a while now with packaging, and the use of less plastic. That’s not to say plastic doesn’t have its place if the product made from it is used for long enough. Think of Tupperware: my mother used it a lot when I was a kid. I’m 53 and it’s still being used. It’s single-use plastic that’s the concern. We need alternatives to that in the way I hope the Sproutworld pencil could be some alternative to the plastic ballpoint pen [the Bic brand alone has made more than 100 billion of them], which makes no sense.
TE: Obviously you partner with big players in the corporate world. But what can be done to dial back the skepticism that a lot of consumers feel about corporate efforts towards sustainability?
MS: I know there’s a lot of greenwashing out there. Scratch the surface of a lot of claims and there’s no substance to them. So I think we will see more of a demand too for documentation, for third party verification, which is why we’re working with blockchain now. There’s a lot of negative talk around cryptocurrency but the blockchain tech behind it is amazing because it makes for a means of complete transparency – about where and how things are made – and it can’t be changed. There’s a lot to work out to create a single blockchain system but I hope it really takes off. We’re also trying to be visible and real with our own efforts. A lot of companies offset their emissions by buying carbon credits but the problem with that is you’re just outsourcing the cost of your emissions and that doesn’t make us change our ways; in fact, invariably you just buy climate credits and then go back to your old ways. So what we’re doing is purchasing two hectares from the Polish State in order to plant 14000 trees and then we’ll just leave them there. They won’t be used for pencils because this is not a commercial decision. It’s just our way of giving back to the source from which we take because, of course ,we use wood for the pencils. For those, when we cut a tree – and a single tree can give us 175,000 pencils – we plant one to replace it. We’ve only sold 50 million pencils so far, so now we’re looking to make-up pencils, not least because the whole cosmetics market isn’t very sustainable. And I still have the dream of replacing the ballpoint pen with a pen you can plant, but there are so many challenges to that, so that’s some way down the line.
Learn more about Sproutworld here.