We saw a problem

The California based company focuses on sustainable, local manufacturing of on-demand furniture which is sourced from plant-based agricultural waste and is therefore recycable and compostable.  

In the interview Philip and Claudia talk about ecological and social responsibility, the ambiguity of growth and Model No.s expansion plans in Europe, about a sustainable movement in the US, where business – not the government – is taking the lead. And about the fact that he wants to tell his kids in 20 years that he saw the problem and tried to do his piece to solve it.  

We have shortened the interview. The full interview can be watched through the video link at the end of the article. 

Today’s interview: Phillip Raub, CEO, Model No.

“We source 95% of our materials locally. We use only sustainable materials as well as eco-friendly and non-toxic materials in what we do. When we 3D print we use plant-based agricultural waste and anything that we digitally fabricate with wood is either sustainably farmed or it’s reclaimed and salvaged wood.” 

Phillip Raub

Claudia: You founded B8ta and you are now the CEO of Model No. What made you join them? 

Phillip: I was thinking about what my passions are and what are the things that I wanted to do.  And I realised that I felt like we have a really big consumption problem in the world. I think you can talk about sustainability and even how you produce products, but ultimately, I think we as humans just probably consume more than we ultimately need in a lot of cases. 

And I think it comes down to find ways to make better products but also make them so that they are longer lasting. And you also have to think about what the end-of-life strategy of a product is. And so those are all things that really take a lot of consideration, especially as people are spending more money and more time in their homes.  

And so out of that has come “Model No.”. We 3D print and digitally fabricate furniture. We produce everything locally to the markets that we’re in. So today, you know, we only ship products primarily to the United States or US-based companies that maybe have offices globally. And we source 95% of our materials locally. We use only sustainable materials, as well as eco-friendly and non-toxic materials in what we do. So, when we 3D print, we use plant-based agricultural waste and anything that we digitally fabricate with wood is either sustainably farmed or it’s reclaimed and salvaged wood. 

Claudia: I understand that you are taking your ecological responsibility very seriously. And what about your social responsibility? Do you feel like you treat people differently? Do you treat suppliers differently? How would you describe that? 

Phillip: Yeah, I mean I’ve always operated that way. I would say we have got really very strong relationships with our vendors.  

Internally, from the social responsibility point of view. One of the reasons that we don’t use toxic materials, is not wanting to put more of those toxic elements out into market. And at the same point in time we don’t want our people in the micro factories being exposed to those elements.  

We really try to think about the whole supply chain. When you are running a business, you’re trying to generate revenue you need to be profitable for the long-time health of the company and to be able to fulfill your mission. But at the same time, I think we are very transparent in our costs and the things that we are doing so that our vendors feel very comfortable with how we operate our business. 

Claudia: You were talking about overconsumption. You need to grow as well, right? At the same point in time, you think that overconsumption might not be good either. How do you deal with that ambiguity?  

Phillip: One of the things we are working on and we are going to be rolling out later this year is what we call a take-back programme. We do have a direct-to-consumer business in the residential sector but a lot of our business is really focused also on the enterprise sector. We have been saying to people “let’s build a take-back program”. Because all of our materials can either be recycled, composted or naturally biodegraded. We have, for example, just produced a chair using a new material called cellulose acetate, which is 100% biodegradable.  

There are different ways that it can biodegraded. You can submerge it into water, you can put it in soil. Different things will take different times, but the idea is we’re working on an afterlife plan for products. So that is I think something different. The fact is, even though you’re consuming something, we want to make sure that it’s not like: ”Hey, we’re going to manufacture this, the rest is on you.” 

We are thinking about what that life cycle of our product is and how you can properly end it. 

Claudia: And what about repairing? Like Patagonia. I visited them 8 years ago at the headquarters in Ventura and at that point in time, they already had those repair buses where they were driving all across the US and when people were bringing their Patagonia stuff and so on, they were just repairing it for free. I thought that was a great idea.  

Visiting Patagonia

There are companies everyone wants to learn from. One of these companies that is a pioneer of environmental and social responsibility is Patagonia.

Phillip: Yeah, I think for us we will take all that stuff into consideration. Right now we’re still fairly young as a company and I think repairing a piece of furniture versus patching up a jacket is, I think, a little bit different. I think we now have to kind of figure out exactly ‘what does that look like’. I don’t have a plan for that yet but it’s definitely something worth looking at for sure.  

Claudia: Are there any plans to come to Europe? 

Phillip: Eventually, yeah. I mean for right now we want to open up a couple more of what we call micro-factories. The good thing about what we do is it doesn’t require a lot of space. Because we don’t hold any inventory, we don’t have distribution centres. It really comes down to sourcing material locally.  

Finding the right vendors is key to be able to do that. I spent a lot of time in Europe. I was there last summer. I’ll be there again this summer. I met with a lot of different people across the EU and the Nordics, so there is a lot of emphasis on 3D printing. Going to Europe needs some consideration: One, much more you need designs that you see in the marketplace. Two, there is a broader sense of both ESG as well as sustainability in manufacturing. Yet, I have talked to various different people in different countries who have said “put your next micro-factory here”.  

A couple of our vendors are actually headquartered in Europe as well. So we have a lot of easy access to all the things to do business. And I think for me it’s just making sure that we can feel comfortable, that we’ve built a scalable model here in the United States first and then we’ll start to look to build that infrastructure in Europe in the coming years.

Zeichnung der Weltkugel

Claudia: The European legislation at the moment is getting very strong on ESG, which is great actually, but it puts also a burden on companies. At the same point in time we have in place since January the supply chain law in Germany, which has a huge influence actually on the whole of Europe where companies really need to take care of their whole supply chain. They cannot just say “We take care of what we do within our company.” They have to really take care of wherefrom they supply their stuff and look into this as well. That there isn’t any sort of child labour or any pollution and so on. How is actually the legislation and also maybe what is the prevailing opinion of the society in the US at the moment? 

Phillip: Yeah, it’s very delicate and challenging in the United States for a variety of reasons. One, I think ESG, I think the terminologies are very broad, as you mentioned. You’ve got environmental aspects of it, then you also have social aspects of it. Sometimes it gets all lumped up together. In the United States we have over three hundred million people over a large geography, political differences in a lot of ways.  

I think there’s been a push at the federal level in the United States on some ESG things. But there are a lot of different opinions on a lot of areas, so you see push-back in certain states. Generally speaking, you start to see a movement, where businesses are taking the lead. I find this more often than not, that businesses lead the way before the government does, at least in the United States. Where there is an opportunity, people start to move and you start to see shifts.  

I think in the United States there is definitely more movement from businesses as there is a lot of push-back from politics at play. We will continue to see businesses being very proactive in trying to drive a lot of change. I hope that that’s what will move things forward.  

Claudia: In my work experience we do a lot of consulting for organisations and try to help them become more “beautiful organisations”. What I do a lot at the moment is to create kind of safe spaces, to talk about those ambiguities in organisations. Because strategy is more often focused on profit. Then you have the legislation kicking in, then you also have your personal values kicking in, in terms of what do I want to tell my kids and so on. It feels that organisations need a lot of space to talk about these ambiguities when it comes to strategy. It felt a lot simpler in earlier times. Are there any ambiguities in your company?  

Phillip: Not too much. I think we are a pretty small company at this point and I think fortunately because of that, most of the people in the organisation have very similar kind of beliefs and we have a similar mission.  

I think that as we open more micro-factories, as we hire people in different geographies, I do think that eventually, we will have a broader difference in opinion, which ,to your point, I’m a firm believer that you should have safe spaces. If we all think the same, then we will never make change. It’s really healthy for us to have debates and to have differences but to do it in a respectful manner.  

Claudia: What is it that you maybe in ten years want to tell your kids how you contributed business-wise to a better world. What legacy do you want leave here?  

Phillip: My kids are very curious. You know I have always encouraged them to ask a lot of questions. Sometimes it’s challenging for me when they ask questions but I understand and I appreciate that.  

Claudia: That sounds great. But if they are that curious and if they will ask you when they are 20, the question: “Papa, what did you actually do for a better world?”, what will be your answer then?

I want to tell my kids I saw a huge problem in the furniture manufacturing space. We tried to make a difference, we were trying to use different materials, we were trying to think about how we manufacture, doing more local manufacturing and using more sustainable non-toxic materials. That we saw a problem and we were trying to solve that and make a change.  

Phillip Raub

We are small and even if we do things differently, unless the whole industry starts to move in a different direction, I alone will not be able to make that change. I think it really requires others to do it. I want my children to know that when I see a problem historically I have been able to try to solve those problems. I can’t solve all of them but I think we will do everything that we can to try to make a difference.

What thoughts/ideas came to your mind while reading this interview?

What other best-practice companies should we look at?

We are interested in a dialogue. Please write us: c.wintersteiger@trainconsulting.eu

Claudia Wintersteiger schreibt auf einem Flipchart

Claudia Wintersteiger

Accompanies organisations through profound transformation processes and supports them in designing business models, developing new strategies and implementing them.

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