Meet Tijn van Elderen, CEO of homewares brand Brabantia

Meet Tijn van Elderen, CEO of homewares brand Brabantia

The boss of the company that's turned the household bin into an object of desire talks to Abby Trow about Brabantia's devotion to good design and crucially to sustainable design

Tijn van Elderen of Dutch global homewares brand Brabantia

Tijn van Elderen says Brabantia has always put sustainability at the core of its work - it's just been a bit too modest when it comes to letting everyone know. Not that he wants to brag but he thinks customers should know that Brabantia strives to be as eco friendly as possible - and that means making products that are recyclable and contain recycled material.

As we all know, Brabantia makes extremely useful things for our homes - indeed it's hard to find an abode that doesn't have a Brabantia bin, tin, bowl or laundry basket.

Its products are very good quality - there's no built-in obsolescence with Brabantia -  and this Dutch company has been hugely successful over recent years at imbuing its wares with design flair. And in the case of its indoor pedal bins, it's not an exaggeration to say they've become objects of desire, with their wonderful colours and curvaceous bodies.

What you may not associate Brabantia with, says CEO Tijn van Elderen, is being green. And he thinks that's a pity because the company has always been green in word and deed since it was founded in the small town of Aalst 96 years ago to make sieves, milk cans and funnels.

'We've never polluted along the way and we've never sold rubbish. That's because we started in a small place and our customers were also our neighbours, so we didn't want to upset them by ruining the place where we lived. So sustainability has always been our sweet spot...it's always been logical to our company to make things people want and not to damage the environment in the process.'

 

 

those gorgeous pedal bins in mineral colours
Brabantia makes things for cooks too, such as digital scales
Brabantia's founding fathers with a range of homewares, circa 1950
the Brabantia pedal bin in the 50s. It's glammed up a lot since then..

As for recycling and circular economies...well van Elderen says Brabantia  - which has ISO14001 certification for environmental management - has been at the forefront for decades: 'When World War Two ended in '45 we were making pots and pans out of discarded oil drums, and we made cups out of condensed milk tins... Today of course steel contains around 40 per cent recycled content and at Brabantia we use a lot of steel.'

What about plastic?

And a lot of plastic, which is more problematic being derived from petro-chemicals and not being bio-degradable. Does he see that as a sticking point in terms of having becoming a truly sustainable company? 'Of course not all plastics are recyclable, but we use polypropylene, which is. It can be recycled 10-11 times without loss of quality. So if you have one of our bowls for 10 years and then you recycle it and it's made into another bowl.. then the material can have a working life of up to 120 years. I don't think that's so bad.'

van Elderen, who studied psychology at university, became CEO in 2012 after a career in marketing with drinks giant Diageo. He is a member of the family that founded Brabantia but says he didn't join it until 'my competencies were needed.'  His competencies have subsequently steered the brand through the recession and he's overseen the design and development of increasingly stylish products. He describes the job of a CEO to be 'a firestarter', which doesn't mean upsetting the apple cart for the sake of it, but to keep complacency at bay. 'We have to initiate, we have to be futureproof, we have to make our products more beautiful.'

Beautiful is a word he uses a lot 'You can make products that are super eco-friendly...but if they don't look nice, no-one will buy them. We have to accept that the first criterion people judge something on is 'do I like the look of it?' So you can't ignore aesthetics.'

Flatback bins have bronze Cradle-to-Cradle certification
Brabantia's timer and many other products are made from polypropylene, one of the most recyclable plastics
The Patrice design was big in the 1970s
Tijn van Elderen says with the circular economy, people can feel less guilty about buying products
Brabantia is donating one tree to WeForest for every rotary dryer it sells
Laundry bins are super stylish, and practical with one side for colours, one for whites

He says what is changing - slowly but steadily - is consumers' awareness of the eco issues around manufacture: 'So if you have a product that costs 10 euros, and you have another product that looks as good, is as good quality, and it costs 10 euros and it's more sustainable, then customers will probably choose the latter. But we have to communicate to our customers why X product is more sustainable than Y product, they're not going to ask.'

So he's firmly of the view that you can't load on extra cost for being green because most consumers won't buy it. But in the long run, the investment in green technology will pay off because people will choose the more eco friendly product, meaning you sell more over your less eco competitors.

'People do want to do what they can. And they do care about the environment. Especially about trees, we all love trees!' says van Elderen.

Cradle to Cradle

He says Brabantia is fully behind the drive to manfacture cradle-to-cradle products, which means no part of a product should end up in landfill, rather all of it should be recyclable. And he is full of admiration for the Cradle To Cradle organisation. 'So far we have 30 products that meet C2C standards and that number will continue to rise. Our flat-back bins, for example, have Bronze C2C Certification.

'I do think the founders of the C2C movement, William McDonough and Dr Michael Braungart, were prophets when they got going in 1992. They've made industry and business think differently about manufacturing.'

Brabantia manufactures in Europe but it also has a factory in Zhuhai, China, where environmental standards are way below those in the EU. Why does a company that prides itself on being eco want to manufacture in a country where river and air pollution from factory waste is a major cause of ill health and environmental degradation? 

van Elderen points out that Brabantia is a global company selling to 12,000 outlets in 90 countries and by manufacturing in China it can serve Far East markets more readily. And he says the factory operates to the same rigorous environmental standards as its EU counterparts. 'The water that's recycled during our processes is cleaner than the water that comes into the factory! What I would say is that in China we're trying to lead by example.. to show how factories can limit pollution and not waste energy.'

 

offering a wide range of colours is a large part of Brabantia's success
Blue kitchen - Brabantia's got the accessories you need in the colours that go
The company's able to offer its steel pedal bins in a host of colours..this one's in Marsala Red
Soap dispenser..Brabantia has plenty of goodies for the bathroom
.

As to the age-old conundrum of whether to buy or not to buy - and there's a huge drive to get us to make do and mend, to use what we have until it's absolutely on its last legs - van Elderen returns to the cradle to cradle movement to answer that.

'I think if we're closing the loops and making manufacturing circular, so there is no waste, so everything is re-used, then I don't think we have to feel guilty about being consumers.'

Some may scoff and say that's a futuristic fantasy, but as more manufacturers start thinking and designing C2C, perhaps the day draws nigh when going on a shopping trip doesn't pose a moral dilemma.

 

Read more: see how Brabantia's donating half a million trees to Africa

.
.