Henrik Marstrand is the founder and CEO of Mater, a furniture brand dedicated to sustainability, ethics and craftsmanship. Listen to his take of growing a Copenhagen-based impact company that solves the global waste problem through design.
By balancing idealistic ambitions and practical business realities, Henrik is part of a new wave of entrepreneurs using the power of consumerism for lasting change. In this talk, he gets real about balancing ice-cold business with idealism, closing the furniture loop with renewable material solutions and having the right brand narrative.
Silja: For today's episode, we met Henrik Marstrand at their showroom and office in Copenhagen. As the Founder and CEO of Mater, his mission is to solve the global waste problem through furniture design. By balancing idealistic ambitions and practical business realities, he’s part of a new generation of entrepreneurs using the power of consumerism for positive change. We began the conversation by discussing his professional background and why he took the leap and started a furniture company.
Henrik: My own personal background is, you know, I’m a business graduate from Copenhagen Business School, back in the days in the 90s, right? And I’ve had several leading director positions. Basically, I didn’t know anything about design or sustainability or manufacturing. When I launched this company in 2006, for me being sort of a global marketer in my business life. It’s looking at what trends or … you map out the megatrends. And back ten or twelve years ago, the word sustainability – whatever that means – came up as something that would be something that is timeless and a future business model. But when you map out your business opportunities and say what can a profit like me who has always been very entrepreneurial, even in corporate positions, and having all sorts of experiences and what are we known for here … coming back to our earlier discussions, right? What are we known for here? We are known for green thinking. We are known for Hans Christian Andersen. We are known for windmills and maybe some medicine. But you know, I don’t know anything about all of that, but I know as growing up living and experiencing design, … you sort of say this I can take global. But also, what is actually the purpose of the next brand? And Mater was founded just before the financial crisis which hit in 2007 or 2008. So it was founded in 2006. So you do some research, and then this sustainability comes up. Whatever that means. And it meant for me travelling to far far away destinations in the dirtiest workshops of China, India and Vietnam where the low cost of production is a key thing. And that comes back to the profit model because this is not charity. This is ice-cold business, and I cannot run a business without making money. So I guess what design does is that if you look at the aesthetics of a product, the sheer feeling that I need it for the sake of the beauty. That means that some of the extra costs that you have in manufacturing, which is certifications, fair wages, … all these things that normally would add up to a higher cost price (which it does). You can cover that in a discussion about “I just need that. I need that piece of furniture because it is so beautiful. I don’t care if I pay more or less for that.”
Simon: So you say that the aesthetics of the object or the design is basically covering up or … nudging people into a more sustainable way of buying?
Henrik: If you look at really competitive businesses like the food sector, where you have almost daily purchases of things. You want to do the right thing, but you are not able to do the right thing every time because you have a limited budget of how much to spend on food and all that. So you want to do it, but it needs to be competitively priced in, let’s say our everyday life. What I saw in this business was that these clearly higher production costs that we would need in order to have certified wood or a slightly higher wage and some of the manufacturing processes. You can cover that in the aesthetics which I find very interesting with this business even though it’s super, super slow.
Simon: And talking about this business … you are working, or Mater as a company works with designers, right? External designers and if you say you put so much value in the aesthetics and kind of that’s your argument to sell that product on a slightly higher price. How do you select them or how do you come in touch with them? And is there a transfer of, you know, a mindset as well or is the mindset coming from outside? You know, it’s a very certain value set that you have to share with them, right?
Henrik: Yeah, it comes back to when we founded Mater. And again, just coming from outside the business … just calling up designers is a little bit problematic. So I had a lot of help in the beginning to select a range of Danish or international based designers. In their heart, they wanted to say “OK, I want to do good, but how do I convert that into products?” And this is what we as a manufacturing unit, must motivate. OK, these are the materials, and if you look at Mater today and also compare it to the history of it, it’s very earthy. Mater means mother in Latin. So that stems from the word Mother Earth — or knowing what a responsible mother would do these days raising her kids. So that is sort of nestled into the word. And when you need to convert that into products, you need to have a very good sit down with the designers that were commissioned at that time. You cut some corners. You cannot do everything perfectly. And that is where I think we have succeeded and where others have failed: We accept that we are not there 100% yet from the beginning. Was all the wood certified at the beginning? No, it wasn’t. Was all the aluminium waste 100% aluminium waste? No. But the important thing for us is how to get there. So and again, it was important to have a ruthless aesthetic focus on creating future classics. I’m not saying that this was the original business model. I’m just saying that when things get timeless, you just forget about how it’s made. That is other companies’ take on sustainability. It lasts like two generations, so forget about how it’s made. I’m not saying that they say that, but it’s sort of if you have nothing else to say, you say oh it’s timeless. For me, that is the worst excuse ever invented in terms of how things are made. Because then you basically do not need to change how things are made.What we have challenged and I must say we’ve succeeded despite our commitment to sustainability because in 2006 it’s like yeah you know that’s the trend for the next year like velvet. You know it will change. Next year’s going to be different, right? So and especially the Danish industry here was very sort of traditional thinking. And then the financial crisis hit and you know there was a lot of problems in just getting a new brand executed on a global scale because when things get tough, you go with the ones you know. And at that point, we were like not known. So it prolonged the financial goals of the company by five years and so but if you’re very persistent and say no this needs to happen then you get very stubborn, and you just want to execute that. And when the whole thing shifted, we were in a position where we had luckily a few products that already had a global recognition as some of the future icons — like the Mater high stool. Which again was a ruthless compromise from Space Copenhagen creating a new modern classic. And lucky for us, the whole trend came back with wood. It came like no less stainless steel and polished and less plastic and all that. There was a trend going into let’s say darker wood which we honestly didn’t research for. It was a beautiful design product, and that took us globally.
Simon: And when was that?
Henrik: It was part of the launch collection, so that was like 2006. But again it was not the cheapest product. Back in the early days, it was manufactured in India, and it was different colours in each batch. So we knew that at some point we had to come back. Once we got scale, we had to move it. So we moved back to Europe in 2011, and that was where we got the full certification on all the wood we did. We could not achieve that in destinations far far away.
Simon: And is that also part of the journey? Because you say that in the beginning, not everything was 100% certified and not 100% sustainable and ethical. Is that part of the journey that you are trying to get more and more into that direction? And is that also bound to financial problems or challenges?
Henrik: There are different approaches. If you jump on board really early on with new stuff and the last couple of years was like material innovations and all that. If you jump really early onboard, you have to either say: OK call me in two years when you got it done. Like 100% recycled this or that. Or you jump on board straight away and say: Well how do we get from 20% to 40% to 60%? And then you are very, very loyal to your group of subcontractors. Luckily, what we’ve proven is that we do come with scale and we do come with volume. That is something so essential in getting the whole production motivated to change. Because if you ask for a lot of changes and ask what do you do with your waste and your energy sources and all sort of things that cost a lot of money… and then you buy ten chairs. Nobody will go on that journey. So you have to have long term commitments. And the proof that you are actually able to put your money where your mouth is. And that is going to do it on a global scale. And that means that when we did our initial work in India, we had to say: Well, you’re not doing this just because you’re saving the planet. You are doing this and the changes because you need to earn money. And if we cannot argue at least if you go to the traditional low-cost production countries like India or China … if you cannot make an argument that will, in terms of sustainability and changes, will earn them more money by the end of the day, you can just forget about it. Because the world is run by profit, it’s not run by our heart. Even though we have, let’s say not a hidden agenda that we want to change things. But in the real-life, when a factory owner needs to pay his workers and all that. He can only pay them in cash, right? So for instance, if you come with very high demand in terms of fair wages and you go and check. And you have external consultancies that come and check. This is the stick and the carrot discussion, right? If we say to them: Now listen … the reason why you need to pay a fair wage is that in the long run you, as a workshop, will earn more money. Reason being that if you look at very high demanding design product which is very demanding in terms of training the actual craftsmen to make. Because we are ice cold, if things are not as expected when a container is opened, the whole thing goes back. And the cost of that, you know, cutting corners and doing work with workers that are less paid … You know they don’t give a sh**. If you’re less paid, you’re not committed. You just want to run across the road and get one rupee more in the next workshop. But if you prove that it takes six months to train a worker, right. If you pay him a fair wage, he’ll stay because we come with volume and we come with work. If you look at the Bowl Table, which is a very good collection for us as well. It is done in this waste mango. We have 20 workers non-stop doing this final preparation, which is like a traditional Indian production. Non-stop around the clock. We were not able to that in the beginning, but now it’s solid work. And they need to have really good pay, and we check that and we, of course, we negotiate yearly. All these discussions will still be going on but maybe in just a little bit higher cost price than it used to be. But what we feel very strong for is that you take a resource like a mango tree, which again is a fruit tree. We love and enjoy the mango in the supermarket. And mango is one of India’s biggest exports. And it’s professionally run mango forests so once the tree ends its productive life as a mango tree. Then what happens? You know you need to cut them down and make room for new trees. So then you discuss what to do with that waste mango trees?The discussion that we come is: OK, there’s an almost zero value waste material lying just around. Why don’t we insource that? Try to get a global aesthetic design object built into that? And then you nest a lot of profit in the entire value chain providing profit and income. So that is sort of inherited in the model here. So you take something that is zero value almost, and then you build profit into it and design can do that. If we were doing something like wooden flooring or some more generic products, you would be in deep, deep trouble because you cannot add value there. You know there are certain price points where it is not possible. But again, back to my point: If you pay 50€ more or less for something that is super nicely done — aesthetcially attractive. You will get your mission accomplished. So yeah.
Simon: And the people we’re talking to … we’re trying to get them on the scale from total idealist to ice-cold businessman. Where would you put yourself on that scale?
Henrik: I used to be a very, very ice-cold businessman. And I have now, as I’m running on my 14th year with Mater, moved towards the more idealistic approach. Honestly, going to work these days is also about changing the future. But I can’t change the future by charity. That is an entirely different thing. I need to change the world by proving that we are financially strong and that we can create a global business. And there is actually a demand for that. And not just on the consumer level, but on the architect level. Because it’s on an architect level where you have scalability, you don’t see any design brand succeed without a very hard focus on hospitality. Because of 400 rooms in a hotel with Mater furniture. That’s a lot, right? And coming back to your own point where we see the last couple of years which is maybe we want to turn the discussion into that focus now because the change has been massive. This is also why we took an adventure into plastics and especially ocean waste. It’s on everybody’s topic. I’m just saying also having kids very interested in shopping and online shopping, clothing and all that. As parents, we can have opinions about how much to spend. But the fact of life is that consumerism is here to stay. And this company was born into a financial crisis. And I had seen when the wheels stopped turning and how the entire industry and other industries were affected, you know. People are out of jobs. People spend less. The whole thing goes down the drain, and it’s just the fact that our global economy is nested on the thought of consumerism. And if you take that as a way of saying: Spend less or stop spending, it will have huge implications. That’s a sort of a critical factor in our thinking because we understand that consumerism is here to stay. You can advocate your kids and yourself: OK, do we really need that next dress or …? And sure you will have those discussions. But I see our role as manufacturers to accept that consumerism is here. You want to say: What are the side effects of the environment and people related to production? So that comes back to the ocean waste thing because the ocean waste is sort of again a very very bad, bad thing that is something that consumerism has created. We should as manufacturers be a motivating point of cleaning up. If you had asked me three years ago, I would have never said we’re going into plastics. Forget about it, you know, we are into earthy materials and all that. Until a very entrepreneurial businessman came to us and said: Well this is cleaned fishnets. This can go equally into a plastic production cycle, and it’s even less on the carbon footprint than virgin plastic. What can we do with this? And that was when we again said: OK, there’s room for a commercial opportunity here. If you keep manufacturing into wooden products, you know that has a certain price point because of the craftsman, the price of the raw material, the price of certified wood. And if you wanted to move into more, let’s say more attractive price points, you would look at this as a commercial opportunity. Two years ago, by coincidence, I had invited myself for coffee at one of the old design families here, which is the Ditzel heritage. And we had a good talk with the sisters that run the design heritage and looked at some of the old files and … it’s like Christmas, you know. You look at these things from a design perspective, and suddenly, a design came up, which was a very old chair. It’s an outdoor chair, and it has a very distinct look. It was perfect for testing this new material, this clean fishnet. Because it wasn’t a full shell. It was smaller slaps. It was ideal for testing, and so it is sort of a little bit coincidence but also looking at what is a calculated risk. Maybe we would have experimented in years to get it right. There are other brands now that are into full shells and they have massive problems in terms of getting the quality right.
Simon: Is this process exemplary for how it usually goes? You have this, you say, a clever businessman coming along saying: Hey here’s a material that we are ready to use now. And the other thing is that you’re looking for classic designers or people who already put value in creating aesthetics. And then you’ll bring that together. Is that the role of Mater?
Henrik: I’ve searched for a few years of having a more classical line. That was maybe designed back in the ’50s or ’60s because again, the market trend is going in that direction. Also, if you look at what is well-known from the Danish design heritage? So from a commercial standpoint, it was ideal to look at the archives. But it’s not something that we will only do going forward. It could have just as easily been young talented Danish design or Swedish designers or American for that matter. It came across as a few coincidences. But as we’ve progressed and matured as a brand over the years, we see sustainability as stories. What we’ve struggled with is actually to get a very complex story across about ethical and sustainable thinking when manufacturing in destinations far, far away. So you would have to have a long discussion about what are fair wages? What is energy consumption? What is this and that? Messages that in this day and age, where you have five seconds to capture attention, it’s impossible to get across.
Simon: And ocean waste is probably something that clicks faster with the people.
Henrik: Yes, it clicks faster. So it’s also this thinking about stories rather than the word sustainability that has, you know, gotten completely impossible to interpret. Everybody has an opinion about what that means. Does it mean types of manufacturing, or is it something completely different?
Silja: Can you define it for yourself?
Henrik: Every product must do more good than bad. Ha!
Silja: How do you measure?
Henrik: Right, how do you measure?
Simon: What’s the scale here?
Henrik: Yeah, what’s the scale here? Now if you think that – coming back to the question: Why launch anything these days? You know, the world has chairs enough. So every product or lighting product we do must deliver more good than bad. So, for instance, the ocean thing was that we are motivating through design to clean up the ocean. Imagine, if that product went through the roof – coming back to that idealistic approach: Imagine this was the next big thing globally. Imagine if we ran out of ocean waste and fishnets. Wouldn’t that be something? Idealistically, but that should be the driving force about something that we do because scalability means everything. Cleaning up or changing ways of especially waste streams as we call them here. The ambition is: Imagine if we ran out.
Simon: And talking about scalability … shifting the angle a little bit more onto the business side of Mater is that you’re not alone, right? You’re working with investors, and you’re working with people who are backing you or backing the vision behind Mater. One example is North-East Venture, which is also focused on ethical awareness and sustainable brands. Can you just a little bit elaborate about how you select those people? Or how do you come in touch with those people? Because again, you have to kind of share the same mindset because if they just want to make the most money possible, I don’t know if they would go into a sustainable, ethical business world.
Henrik: Well, working with professional money and investors is something that keeps the business sharp. It keeps your focus on executing your numbers. Honestly.
Simon: So it’s kind of a handrail for you?
Henrik: As the years have progressed, business angels were investing in, working partners have invested in, and at some point, you say: OK, what is the dream plan here? And if you come up with a dream plan that is executing faster than organic growth would allow – that’s ambition, right? So that’s why you go to professional money. You say: Help us live out our ambitions. And our ambitions, two years back when they came aboard, to say: OK if we need to scale this faster what needs to happen? We need to be physically present in what we call Earth Galleries. You’re actually sitting in the first one, which we founded ourselves. It is a brand platform where you step into our stories because people don’t get it. If you look at a struggling brick and mortar furniture store that is, you know, the sales are a little bit down and yeah we take a few Mater products. Then you have a chair in the corner, and a light in the other corner and you miss out the WHY completely. Then it just becomes a fight for the aesthetics: May the best product win, hooray! But if you look at where we really want to make an impression, which is also the architects of the world, you would need to invite them into a branded experience space. This is why we also have this drawer out here, which is something that is the first thing that you meet when you’re entering a Mater Gallery. It’s not a product; it’s material. So and then you have a discussion, and then people start to understand (especially the architects of the world): Oh, we can actually make an impact. And the owner of that hotel can actually make an impact. Oh, how do we make an impact together? How much waste do we want to move into this project, and how do we speak about it afterwards? After launched, after it’s opened? This is also why we invented in our own interior studio right across the courtyard here. We want to create aesthetically nice experiences within hospitality that is completely sourced ethically: from wood waste, brick waste, whatever. Essentially now, we can take and renovate an entire suite or room or hotel. Take the wood, put it back as furniture or old bricks come back as paint. But we’re not just doing that for the good-hearted sake of it. But it’s also a branded experience that a hotel needs to provide all the guests in the new modern area.
Silja: You scale not only the products or the collection but also the experiences?
Henrik: The experience is key. If you go a few years back, the only sustainable thing a hotel could do was to ask you if you want to leave your towel on the floor for washing and that was maybe their thinking of sustainability, Today, you need to go into an experience where we say well this entire conference room that has moved like 15 tons of ocean waste. And you’re sitting on ocean waste and these corporate companies, the clients, they get more and more … they need to be more and more responsible in their entire way of thinking about their business. So of course, big companies here in Denmark, they want to sit in conference rooms where there are opinions about how the entire room came together. Furniture, lighting, walls …
Simon: So the general need narrative place for you, right? It’s your friend — the general narrative of people asking for more sustainable products. People get interested in how things like produce. Right?
Henrik: Yes, without any aesthetic compromises. You still need to look at the ocean waste as well. And if you look at the plastics, it needs to be interesting. That’s also why most research was actually the composition of how you touch it. Not like, you know, normal shiny plastic, and all that. No, it has to be a little bit rough. It needs to be sort of … maybe that is some eco thing. Yeah, it is. Maybe you did that to touch and feel of it is essential. That’s also why new material research as we are doing it must be interesting as a material. Otherwise, it would be too generic. So it needs to be ground with something like the new tabletop we’ve done together with the Smile Plastics. Yoghurt cup waste is blended with some of the aluminium tops, so that gives us sort of a marble-ish look.
Silja: Yeah, it looks sort of sprinkled.
Henrik: Yes, interesting material. It needs to go like that or some of the other materials we’re currently investigating in, which is food waste. It’s a new collection that is coming, which is partly reused or collected food waste from the professional industry. So we’re launching a pendant series in partly-crushed chicken waste.
Simon: Also, another kicker for an interesting story, right? That’s also something which in a split second you get it interested: What’s that? What’s behind that?
Henrik: But it’s sort of again: the network. A designer, a very experienced Danish designer, came to me. She was commissioned out in China to do some creative consultancy work for a Chinese store chain and then she met this crazy guy in Hong Kong which was very idealistic about creating or collecting all sorts of food waste rather. Fish, even broccoli, blah blah blah, all sorts of things. And he processes that together with some bio-resin which is sort of a non-toxic binder because in order for this to create a material you need to mix it for something, right? And currently the material we like the best is the crossed chicken bone because it looks a little bit like marble, but it’s not. And we can produce shapes like pendants in it. Not too thick, very nice. But he’s only at 30% chicken bone waste at the moment. And would I be saying to him come back in five years when you’ve got to 80% … or you say to him we go now and what do we need in order to get to 50% and 60%? New machinery? OK, then we need to sell a lot of pendants, right? But you know that’s part of the journey. Part of the commitment because this is where we see the world going. It’s circular thinking, and the work we do now is to look at some of the really big corporations’ waste streams and say: What can we do with that? What can we design together with them to put back into their offices as chairs as tables as lamps? The more we know about the topic of plastic … and what we’ve learned from that is: We do take back the slaps. So once it enters its life you, we will be or we are currently able to recollect that. You can take the whole thing apart. That can be reproduced three times. Number four, when you’re grinding it and a process that again, it will not be stable enough to function as a product. If you follow that thinking, you will say: OK give me your plastic, and you commit to a certain amount of X amount of tons when you refurbish conference rooms, meeting rooms, canteens, stand tables. If you commit to a certain retake, we guarantee that it will last three cycles of production. So what is the average lifespan of an office chair? Is it five years? Is it seven years, tadada? Once it’s done, bring it back. And you get a new chair or whatever that can be processed. So that is why the circle becomes essential. And working with big corporations because they can make a difference and scalability is everything. So what happens behind the lines where we have to correlate with some other let’s say rather big corporations here who are very aware of their waste stream and how their waste room can become part of their corporate profile. You can literally sit in your own waste, aesthetically nice because that is what a design company must deliver. But we don’t go out and say oh let’s do that next wooden chair and all that. Yeah maybe we do that on occasion, but most of the time we knock on doors and say well let’s have a look at your waste. It could be a wooden waste, aluminium waste and plastic waste which are sort of the three key things we’re looking at, at the moment and motivate them to say: OK, how do you take that back in a circle? Because it’s cheaper. It’s clearly more responsible than making new material. Either way around it is something that has already been manufactured.
Simon: Right, and it’s also helping them with their, you know, not just as a story but it helps them again with their CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) and with topics they are kind of confronted with as well.
Henrik: Yes. And what happens then? If a product is specially designed for them, and if a product then becomes part of the Mater family in the permanent collection, we take it global. So it’s sort of a co-thing that we also help take away their garbage, their issues. And that is a trend that is coming super fast. We are at the forefront of this because we’ve trained for many years, in all sorts of things. And we see that as a huge thing because then we’re not just a design brand with an ethical mindset. We are a motivating partner for the circular economy within the cycle of a big corporation. And we’re doing three major projects at the moment with three large Danish corporations.
Simon: So, that leads to the question of what would be … if there’s a happy end or … what is the future for Mater in that sense? Because we’re already talking about the almost separation between the consumer business and the architect and professional business in that sense. Is this the way you would broaden your business in is more the architectural side?
Henrik: Yes, clearly. We see us as you build the brand in a consumer mindset. By the end of the day, everybody’s a consumer. So you build the brand in the consumer’s mindset, but you execute it in a corporate world.
Simon: Which then combines, you know … Everyone is human in a way or the aesthetics are kind of universal in that sense. But the scalability is on one end.
Henrik: Yeah. And what drives me up in the morning these days is not just to have a new prototype in but it’s also this curiosity about you know … the other day there were some images at the Danish news channel about the Roskilde Festival and the tons of garbage that are lying around there. And I’m just saying: Now maybe I should interact with these guys and say well what about next year? And can you separate the waste? No, we cannot. OK but we can help you maybe because there are right now coming social-economic companies where refugees and all sorts of people can be the arms to separate the things, and once we have the separation, we know how to clean it and then to process it. And maybe then next year if we could motivate such a large festival to sit on their own waste. Again, the circular thinking that is what business-wise drives me up in the morning. Where can we make sure to impact massive change and a happy customer in the end? And that is a very, very, very motivating way of being more idealistic. We could not have done this ten years ago because then we didn’t have the scale or maybe the proof. But in the last couple of years. Even the global market is much more open to addressing the issues that they leave behind because they manufacture as well.
Silja: To some sum it up a little bit. It sounds a lot to me like you see Mater as an impact company making or using furniture and not a furniture company making or having an impact.
Henrik: You are completely right. I couldn’t have said it better. But it’s part of the journey. And if you are entrepreneurial thinking, you would … or the road is not like a clear cut straight. You do some learnings, then there’s a corner, and then you flip your business model a little bit because then the opportunity is bigger because the knowledge we have now and the way that we need to interact is very, very, very clear. And if you look at the COP 21 (Conference of the Parties) and the goals and the whole thing where we have to essentially within the next ten years we have to make a change or then we are at a tipping point where it will be difficult for our next generations, our kids to tip it back.
Simon: Thank you so much for listening. If you enjoyed this episode and would like to know more, head over to www.theidealists.co! As always, there’s one more thing we ask our guests, which is: Who should we talk to next?
Henrik: I would hope that he has time; he has really been an inspiration for me. It’s the guy who actually runs Plastix, which is the company that cleans the fishnet. So I would definitely recommend Hans. He’s the CEO. Very ambitious, … they’re very ambitious, and they are extremely interesting to visit.
“Honestly, going to work these days is also about changing the future. But I cannot change the future by charity. That is a completely different thing. I need to change the world by proofing that we are financially strong and that we can create a global business.”
— Henrik Marstrand [00:16:38]
Christian Paul Kägi
B Lab Europe
Mariah Mansvelt Beck