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    The CLIC™ Chronicles: Vitra, a Swiss design icon targeting net positivity
    © Vitra

    rethink sustainability

    The CLIC™ Chronicles: Vitra, a Swiss design icon targeting net positivity

    Millions of tonnes of furniture are thrown away each year – in the US alone twelve million tonnes of tables, sofas, chairs and beds end in landfill, the majority being neither recyclable nor biodegradable1. But the industry is changing, and the traditional linear design process, starting with a drawing board and ending with a product launch, is on its way out. Firms that design for the circular economy, that seek out materials and production processes that minimise their environmental impact, and build in repairability and recyclability, are being rewarded as consumers become increasingly aware of the impact of their spending.

    Vitra, the company behind some of the most iconic and recognisable furniture past and present, is going further still. In this edition of the CLIC™ Chronicles we profile the rise of this Swiss design icon, and see how their approach to sustainability shapes everything they do.

    Firms that design for the circular economy, that seek out materials and production processes that minimise their environmental impact, and build in repairability and recyclability, are being rewarded…

    First generation – creating classics

    When Vitra co-founder Willi Fehlbaum spotted the Charles and Ray Eames Shell chair in the window of a New York furniture store in 1953, the world was on the cusp of change. Willi sensed that the Shell chair, the first with a seat and backrest formed from a single plastic shell, represented that change – luxury and ergonomy combined, available to the masses. Willi and his wife Erika, who had co-founded Vitra in 1950, immediately set about getting the rights to European manufacture.

     

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    The chair was an instant hit, and so began a partnership with the Eames’ that has lasted through generations of both families. Since then, Vitra has become known for its long list of design innovations: from the 2020 Tip Ton RE – in keeping with the founders’ eye for a changing world Vitra’s first chair to be made from recycled German household waste; all the way back to the iconic 1960s Panton chair from Danish designer Verner Panton – the first cantilever ever to be made from a single piece of plastic. These early partnerships, with Panton and the Eames’, inspired Rolf Fehlbaum to follow in his parents’ footsteps.

    …the Shell chair, the first with a seat and backrest formed from a single plastic shell, represented that change – luxury and ergonomy combined, available to the masses

    Second generation – a cultural mission

    “We had this insane idea that you can change the world with chairs, tables and lamps. To everybody outside it seems ridiculous. But we believe it.”2 Vitra Chairman Emeritus, Rolf Fehlbaum.

    Vitra’s cultural mission grew, literally, from ashes. In 1981, four years after Erika and Willi Fehlbaum had passed management of Vitra to their sons Rolf and Raymond, a fire on the Vitra Campus destroyed most of their production facilities. Instead of seeing destruction Raymond and Rolf Fehlbaum saw an opportunity to diversify, to build on their parents’ work while adding their own cultural mission. Leading architects were commissioned to design new buildings – acclaimed Iraqi architect Zaha Hadid cut her teeth with the Vitra Fire Station, her very first building; Frank Gehry won the Pritzker prize for the Vitra Design Museum; and Swiss architects Herzog and de Meuron, recently designers of the new Lombard Odier headquarters in Bellevue, designed the VitraHaus, its flagship store and the Schaudepot, which opened in 2016 and shows the permanent collection of the Vitra Design Museum. The Campus quickly became a cultural hub, and is to this day a global destination for architecture and design enthusiasts.

     

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    In a presentation at the Danish Architecture Centre in 2012, Rolf Fehlbaum, then CEO, spoke of Vitra’s cultural mission not as a luxury to be indulged as and when it could be afforded, but as “an economic model where the cultural is an integral part of what we do,” as something “woven into the fabric.”3 Now, with leadership passed to the next generation, a new thread is being woven in.

     

    Third generation – sustainability shapes everything

    Austrian-American designer Victor Papanek said: “There are professions more harmful than industrial design, but only a few.” Nora Fehlbaum, Vitra’s CEO since 2016, takes this warning seriously. For the company: “Sustainability is not a project, but a corporate attitude that finds expression in every aspect of Vitra’s work.”4

    …across the industry the tide is, slowly, turning, so now Vitra is taking this promise further, committing to follow every product across its entire lifespan, and even beyond

    This starts with their deepest commitment, one that defined Vitra from day one – to make things that last. As Nora Fehlbaum puts it: “Vitra’s greatest contribution to sustainability is the creation of products that last a long time.” With the growth of fast furniture this has been a decades long stand against the tide. But across the industry the tide is, slowly, turning, so now Vitra is taking this promise further, committing to follow every product across its entire lifespan, and even beyond. Vitra will repair and reuse where possible, and facilitate disposal and recycling when not. Much of this is already happening, with take-back programmes, repairability firmly anchored in every new product development and Vitra Circle, physical stores where used furniture is repurchased, restored and re-sold.

    Even before a product is conceived, Vitra is working to keep the environmental cost down. 97% of all materials come from Europe. Suppliers’ production processes, waste and energy usage are assessed and monitored regularly. The company’s manufacturing sites at Weil am Rhein are powered with hydro-electricity and solar energy, as is Vitra’s Swiss headquarters. Water use, too, is thought through, with a closed water system, natural reservoir, and water-permeable paving reducing reliance on the public grid.

    Read also: 10 ways to rethink plastic through technology

    …for Vitra reducing waste and emissions is not enough. To create a positive ecological and social footprint they are committed to going further

    Completing the circle – making waste beautiful

    Vitra’s first recycled plastic chair, the Tip Ton RE, takes its material from Germany’s “Yellow Bag” household waste scheme. 3.6kg of recycled plastic – just months before yoghurt pots and shampoo bottles – goes into each chair. In turn the Tip Ton RE is itself 100% recyclable. Christian Grosen, Chief Design Officer at Vitra, spoke of his happiness at seeing “waste being turned into a beautiful object that could be used for many years.” It’s a line that’s expanding, with Vitra prioritising the use of recycled materials wherever possible.

     

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    But for Vitra reducing waste and emissions is not enough. To create a positive ecological and social footprint they are committed to going further.

    Read also: The CLICTM Chronicles: 10 ways to build a circular economy and the companies leading the way

     

    Beyond the circle

    In the workforce this means an ongoing drive to diversify and to ensure inclusivity and equality. Women have played a vital role in Vitra’s success since the very beginning, when Erika Fehlbaum led the firm’s expansion. When her granddaughter, Nora Fehlbaum, joined Vitra, however, she became one of only a few women in management positions. She set about changing this and now women make up more than half of Vitra’s staff and hold 41% of senior roles. For Nora Fehlbaum: “Equality is essential to be economically competitive.”5 At Lombard Odier, we share this approach – we believe equality is not just a social good but a commercial one too.6

    Vitra also feels a responsibility for the land it sits on, maximising biodiversity and ensuring it also provides a public good. On the Vitra Campus wildflower meadows are home to beehives maintained by Vitra employees, and a public garden, created by Dutch garden designer Piet Oudolf, has welcomed visitors since 2020. And of course the cultural mission is as important to Vitra as ever. The Design Museum emphasises education, offering everything from simple activities for children to full programmes for students of design.

    We believe successful companies build not away from their foundations, but on them

    This mission also drives Vitra’s day-to-day design activity, as they strive to create workspaces that are happier and more productive. As the world emerges from Covid-19, companies are wrestling with how best to bring employees back to the office. Home-working brought benefits for some, but for others it was isolating. So Vitra is reimagining the office as a club. Their Club Office concept aims to give employees the best of both, with dynamic, flexible spaces that combine the convenience and comfort of home-working, with the collaborative and social elements of the traditional office. Better for employees, better for businesses.

    In a family-owned company each new generation of leadership faces a similar dilemma. How to evolve as the world around changes, whilst respecting what was built before. We believe successful companies build not away from their foundations, but on them. Like Vitra we have learnt to adapt to changing times – our simple philosophy: “rethink everything.” Today we are facing the same challenge that all companies must face: building and maintaining a sustainable business model. As Vitra CEO Nora Fehlbaum says about Vitra’s environmental mission: “Now is the time to act. We want to take action now rather than later.” At Lombard Odier we believe the companies that succeed will be those that embrace the CLIC™ economic model, one that’s Circular, Lean, Inclusive and Clean. The time to act is now.

     

    1 https://newrepublic.com/article/156208/fast-furniture-environmental-fiasco
    2012 presentation to the Danish Architecture Centre - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gH_PHaNW2A8
    3 2012 presentation to the Danish Architecture Centre - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uOY6lclw-MU
    4 https://www.vitra.com/en-gb/about-vitra/sustainability
    5 Numerous sudies back up this insight – https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2729348; https://scholar.google.co.uk/scholar?hl=en&as_sdt=0%2C5&q=anita+woolley+what+makes+a+team+smarter+more+women&btnG
    6 https://www.lombardodier.com/contents/corporate-news/corporate/2022/march/evolving-towards-equality-women.html

    Important information

    This document is issued by Bank Lombard Odier & Co Ltd or an entity of the Group (hereinafter “Lombard Odier”). It is not intended for distribution, publication, or use in any jurisdiction where such distribution, publication, or use would be unlawful, nor is it aimed at any person or entity to whom it would be unlawful to address such a document. This document was not prepared by the Financial Research Department of Lombard Odier.

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