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Finally a water cooler talk worth having. Meet the two Emelies in charge of Urbanears’ sustainability roadmap, who are pushing the limit of recycled materials and all things circular.
Hello Emelie James and Emelie Runnquist, could you explain what you do to me like I’m five?
James: My job as Sustainability Design Manager is to give guidance in brand strategies from a bigger sustainability picture, and then drive sustainability objectives in new products, starting from the very first phase of product design.
Runnquist: Trying to use both my brain halves, I’m Design & Product Lead at Urbanears.
You’ve made a very ambitious sustainability pledge. Aren’t you afraid of failing?
Runnquist: I’m an optimist and I’m not afraid of failing a couple of times along the road to 2030, as long as we learn from our mistakes. Also I believe the challenge of the global climate crisis can, and will, accelerate the speed of innovation. Much like the World Wars did in the 20th Century. The digital leap we all took during the pandemic is another example.
James: We’ve also been told previously that some of our goals have been unrealistic. Like the recycled plastic we’re using for our upcoming in-ear product. We were told we wouldn’t be able to reach the desired quality and our desired colors with recycled material. But by sourcing custom recycled material, we did it. Looking ahead, we need to make similar breakthroughs in lots of other areas.
Where does the recycled plastic come from?
James: We have a close partnership with a plastic recycler, with whom we have developed a construction plastic with high quality, which can be made in a rainbow of colours made by 100% preloved products. The source varies a little depending on the final colour, but old water cooler bottles – you know the ones you see in offices around the world – are a source, and also old car lights.
Runnquist: And air conditioners, also from offices. Feels good knowing we turn boring corporate objects into colorful music devices.
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And where does the plastic go before it’s made into headphones?
James: To factories where it’s sorted. Before the pandemic hit I went to visit one partner in what looked like a pretty sketchy part of inland China with lots of dogs walking around the premises. But then I met with the 29 year-old energetic woman who managed the factory, she was well-educated and interesting to talk to, and she took good care of all the stray dogs. I love visiting factories since it lets you convert abstract knowledge into tangible knowledge.
What’s your relationship to plastic like?
James: For many products, as of now, we simply need plastic materials of some sort to ensure function and durability. Plastic materials have a lot of positive qualities, but we need to make sure we don’t use it when we don’t have to. Like when it comes to packaging. And of course, when it is actually needed, work with lowering the environmental impact in production and make sure the plastic is possible to recycle later on. On a personal level, I really make an effort to keep my plastic consumption down. I make my own shampoo for instance, and most other hygienic products, a lot due to the enormous amount of plastic we use in packaging for household items.
Runnquist: I’m not quite at that level yet, but I also try my best to lose plastic weight in everyday life. While the bigger problem is that plastic is made from oil, the good thing is that it allows for a great product circle, at least in theory. The fact that there are so many different types of plastic complicates things. And yes, I really believe that it’s our responsibility as a company who makes things from plastic to implement a take-back system, or find another way to guarantee that we don’t cause more waste.
Consumer electronics isn’t the best industry in class right?
Runnquist: Definitely not. But we’re as much a fashion brand as a consumer electronics brand, so we look at the Patagonias and the Beyond Retros of the world to find inspiration for smarter design practices, materials, durability and take-back strategies.
Which are the biggest challenges on your roadmap?
James: We have several challenges concerning materials and prolonging product lifetime, and they fit into a bigger picture transformation into a circular business model. The challenges are interconnected and so are we in relation to our competitors, political decisions and society in large. We want to go from selling a product to taking full responsibility of the product’s lifetime. To get there, we need a much better infrastructure. Now, customers can buy spare parts on our website — which is great — but still just our first baby step as I see it.
Runnquist: Yes, prolonging our product lifetime is key since electronic waste is the fastest growing waste stream in the world. We can’t let the garbage piles continue to grow. Often a product’s lifetime depends on the battery lifetime, so for our upcoming product this fall we’re implementing eco-charging which means that the battery will never be fully charged, but 90% charged, which in the long run doubles the battery’s amount of charging cycles.
How about Urbanears: Made in Sweden?
James: Who knows, maybe in the future? We do have lots of metals and minerals here, and cellulosa in Finland, and we do have higher sustainability standards than most other countries. But right now it’s just not commercially realistic. I have to say though that China is making progress sustainability-wise. So maybe we shouldn’t be too self-congratulatory here in the Nordics.
But in all honesty, can a company that’s making things ever be fully circular?
James: We have to. So yes. I see no other alternative.
Runnquist: What she said. Neither Emelie or myself are very good at accepting no for an answer. So we’ll keep on keeping on until we get there. If we put in a lot of hard work, maybe our kids can focus on other stuff.
What will you still listen to in 2030 in your fully circular headphones?
James: Speaking of kids. How about To Zion with Lauryn Hill?
Runnquist: Probably some evergreen by Simon and Garfunkel or Dylan.
One last thing Runnquist. You’re a designer by heart, doesn’t it hurt a little compromising your visions by putting sustainability first all day every day?
Runnquist: Well I’m really not compromising anything. The truth is that the new more sustainable materials we’re using opens up a lot of new design opportunities. Lighter colors for example. Besides, my design visions go far beyond the surface of our products.