‘Waste less, reuse more’, says new company Sonoma-USA

An exciting new company has launched on Kickstarter. Sonoma-USA’s mission is to turn waste into usable products, and it has captured the zeitgeist. The Californian apparel manufacturer will divert used materials from the landfill, transforming them into unique, individual and exciting products – accessories such as bags and totes. Sonoma-USA is about reuse, it is about upcycling and using the imagination to give life back to otherwise lost materials.

We caught up with Steffen Kuehr, founder and CEO of the company, to find out more.

This is a very exciting project with a hugely relevant philosophy behind it. What mission do you wish to accomplish with Sonoma-USA?

I’d like to bring more sustainable textile and apparel manufacturing back to the US, to create valuable skilled jobs here in Sonoma County and help divert materials from the landfill to make sure we don’t turn our beautiful rolling hills of Sonoma vineyards into mountains of trash. By partnering with local businesses and engaging the local community we hope to change people’s way of how they look at used materials and start rethinking waste.

You have a pretty diverse background coming to the US from Germany, having lived and worked in London, then in Silicon Valley before joining the Sonoma textile firm BPE-USA six years ago. This sounds like the perfect resume for running Sonoma-USA…

When I came to BPE I had to learn a lot of new things, but it felt very rewarding to make actual, physical products and not just work in the digital, virtual world. Having a marketing and business background certainly helped to bring in new aspects of branding, social media marketing as well as product diversification

How did you come up with the idea for Sonoma-USA? 

Over the years I have been collecting a ton of scrap materials and fabric leftovers which are a regular side product of our production process at BPE but also in other local manufacturing businesses. Materials that are already paid for, with often cool patterns that are simply too valuable to throw away – military camo nylon from our knee pad production, fleece and water repellent nylon from our dog raincoat production and a wide range of other fabrics from different contract sewing jobs for different clients.

In addition to those materials we have been experimenting with materials like reclaimed vinyl banners and billboards that usually end up in the landfill as well – and those are very durable and fun materials to work with.

Have you always had a passion for issues surrounding sustainability?

Yes, but my desire to create something better and more meaningful has developed much stronger over the last few years. The passion has grown the more I got involved in the local community and the more I got to know the apparel and textile industry.

Considering the environmental challenges we face, especially with overseas mass production but also in the US where people still live one of the most wasteful lifestyles on the planet, and raising three little kids, I think it’s just not fair to leave the next generations with piles of our trash to clean up.

How involved are you with eco groups?

Sonoma County, where we are based, is very advanced when it comes to environmental awareness and social consciousness. I’m involved in organisations and movements like the Sustainable Enterprise Conference where I was a speaker for the last two years, and we are guided by the principles of the UK-based One Planet Living movement for our manufacturing business.

Besides tracking and monitoring our environmental impact, we also monitor the social impact of our activities on our employees and our local community. To ensure all these aspirations are fully developed in our business model, we are legally structured as a Benefit Corporation and have started the one-year process to become a certified B Corp.

How do you see Sonoma-USA evolving in the future?

I have a pretty big vision of what I want to build moving forward, and the Sonoma-USA brand is only the first step… the low hanging fruit. There are tons of materials such as banners or billboard out there that we can collect from businesses in the local community and transform into unique and purposeful products.

For instance, with one of the businesses we work, Sonoma Raceway, we will take their old banners off their shoulders. They save the money it would have cost them to haul that stuff to the landfill, it frees up valuable storage space, and it contributes to their sustainability efforts since we have already helped them to keep over 2000lbs of banners out of the landfill. On top of that their customers can buy a very unique piece of Raceway history since each product will be one of a kind.

Furthermore, we will donate a percentage of our proceeds from the products made with Raceway materials back to a charity of Sonoma Raceway’s choice, so it is essentially a win-win situation for everyone.

Support the Sonoma-USA Kickstarter campaign here

Find out more about Sonoma-USA here

Design Talks | The Textile Building | 29a Chatham Place | London | E9 6FJ | UK
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Review: The Sustainable Design Book

Sustainability is so much more than being eco-friendly. Up until a few years ago, the restricting word green was more commonly used, which has since been replaced with sustainability, a word that embraces not just the physical product, but processes, ideologies and actions with ecological value.

In terms of design, sustainability means making goods from non-toxic, biodegradable, recycled and locally sourced materials and manufacturing them in a way that causes minimum damage to the environment.

The Sustainable Design Book takes all the above into account to be a straightforward guide to designing ecologically. The book features 265 new sustainable products from studios including Meike Meijer, Jeongwon Ji and Emiliano Godoy. We gain insight into the practice, trends, materials and techniques through interviews with some of the leading designers such as as Sebastian Cox, Piet Hein Eek and Marjan van Aubel.

Sustainability should also mean creating a product, or envisaging a space, an environment that encourages a more responsible lifestyle. This can be quite challenging, although not an impossibility, when it comes to the design of something that is essentially the antithesis of ecology – as in the motor vehicle.

Reading the book reminded me of an electric car I drove a few years ago that promises a more holistic approach to sustainable mobility. The BMW i3 is manufactured as ecologically as possible, and designed to use little energy. Yet is also takes into account how its occupants relate to the environment and as a result directs calmer, more caring driver behaviour through sustainable design.

We drove through London, on an urban road trip that took us from the West End in dense mid-week traffic through some rougher neighbourhoods in the south of the city. Cocooned in the bright and airy cabin with its abundance of glass and tactile recycled materials, my response to my surroundings altered dramatically from driving my usual car – also a BMW.

I smiled at other drivers, pitied the more aggressive ones, gave way to cyclists and pedestrians – and in return they smiled back (though possibly out of curiosity given the newness of the car at the time). The i3 design had positively impacted on my behaviour.

This electric car has been on the road for a couple of years and I have made it my little private research project. Although most of the BMW i3 drivers I see around London seem as content as I was that day, I was almost run over by a rather aggressive one a few weeks ago! Alas not all behaviour can be controlled.

Achieving some degree of sustainability is achievable through intelligent design. The Sustainable Design Book acts as a handy guide to excite and inspire designers to take a more ecological approach to design in the process, product, and the afterlife of the object.

The Sustainable Design Book is written by Rebecca Proctor and published by Laurence King.

Nargess Banks

Design Talks | 5 – 25 Scrutton Street | Old Street | Shoreditch | London | EC2A 4HJ | UK
Design Talks is published by Spinach Design
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BMW electric i store

The world’s population is moving to cities on a scale never seen before and the burgeoning megacities simply demands a new approach to mobility. Admittedly it has been revealing witnessing how carmakers have reacted to this. Some have put their hearts and souls into it; others have sat quietly on the fence waiting to see how the story unfolds. BMW is amongst the former group. This is a company with engineering at its core and it makes sense for it to embrace sustainable technology in the same way.

At the heart of this is the i brand. The same way M stands for BMW’s performance arm, i is a sub-brand for the marque’s ecological mobility. So far the fruits of this venture have been conceptual studies, but come 2013 and we will finally see the all-electric i3 on our roads.

This small city car is unusual in that it is a ground-up electric car not one with added electric propulsion. This is also the case with the i8 part-electric supercar that will be in production next. These cars are built on a Life-Drive architecture that sees the mechanics, the Drive part, compactly stored underneath much like a laptop with the Life section, which is a light yet robust carbon-fibre cell, on top.

This seemingly simple layout has allowed the designers to create some truly futuristic cars that are so different from the ones we see on the road today. The form language is an expression of the clean energy that drives them, and of the lightness of the materials used.

To celebrate the London Olympics this summer, for which BMW is a sponsor, the Munich i design studio headed by Benoît Jacob has created a special-edition i3 inspired by British design. ‘We wanted to open the first i store in London with a special car with British character,’ he tells me at the opening of BMW Park Lane, a new retail space for the i cars.

It retains the i3 interior layout with its central information zone and floating dashboard, but gets an entirely new interior trim featuring natural, renewable materials. The eucalyptus wood used for the instruments is sourced from sustainably managed European forests; it is treated using natural materials, giving it a natural finish and distinctive hue. The lightweight seats are covered in sustainable wool and leather, inspired by British fashion, with a natural tanning agent made from olive leaves used to dye the leather.

‘We thought if we are to build a car especially for the London Olympics, we could take some influence from British design,’ muses Jacob. ‘We also wanted to show how we would offer the i3 production car – it will come with different characters and this is one of the possibilities.’

In the boot are mounted two i Pedelec bicycles – these compact bikes are fitted with an electric motor that tops up the rider’s muscle power with an extra dose of torque. The bicycles can be folded up quickly and the batteries recharged while in the boot of the i3.

The new showroom has also been designed to be a little different to the usual car salesroom. Light wooden floors are complemented by simple, clean white surfaces, and a bookshelf containing a selection of literature on the problems facing urban mobility, of growing megacities and so on. The message seems to be that electric cars are not just about making a profit for the company, but about the bigger picture of world sustainability.

Park Lane is also a vehicle to show the many services BMW intends to offer to support electric driving, what it calls the 360° Electric package. The details are not yet finalised but it will include bespoke charging zones, like the Wallbox pictured, and the loan of other BMW cars for longer distances that are not yet possible with electric cars. Buyers have been slow on embracing electric cars mainly for reasons of ‘range anxiety’ and BMW is looking at ways to resolve this.

Jacob believes improving driver behaviour is also part of this. ‘Electric cars are critically seen when it comes to range. The i3 is lightweight and highly aerodynamic but we also thought what if part of the solution is the human not just the product alone.’

The interior has therefore been designed to encourage different driver behaviour. ‘Other disciplines like architecture do this – the way a building is designed is taking into account how people live and move in it. The car industry tends to ignore this,’ he notes. ‘The i3 isn’t just about low emissions but also your own sustainability, your health and safety and respecting other people in the city. It is not a selfish machine.’

Jacob and his team wanted to see how far they could push the BMW design philosophy. ‘With the i this is to redefine the whole idea of premium,’ he notes. ‘Premium can be simple – clever.’

The BMW Park Lane opens to the public in July. The i3 will be built at the Zaha Hadid designed factory in Leipzig, Germany and go on sale by the end of 2013.

Nargess Shahmanesh Banks

Read our full report on BMW at the London Olympics published in Car Design News. We reported on BMW’s initial announcement of the i project here back in 2010. Also read a previous interview with Benoit Jacob.

Design Talks | 5 – 25 Scrutton Street | Old Street | Shoreditch | London | EC2A 4HJ?W | UK | www.d-talks.com |Bookshop  | Published by Banksthomas

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Jerrycan inspires e-bike

One+ is an intriguing concept. Vehicle designer Fernando Ocana has created a conceptual electric bike designed specifically to transport clean water from place to place in the developing world.

The lead designer at pioneering electric car company Think, Ocana’s design is an unusual electric motorcycle inspired by the simplicity of the bicycle so that it is simple to produce and easy to maintain.

He says he was inspired by locally available material such as the jerrycan which he notes is a ‘common approach for the developing-world scenario.’

Ocana used rough plastics in the construction to keep costs low and weight nimble. The overall shape works around the need for it to hold the water containers, which can be removed and replaced as users fill up their jerrycans.

The wheels are made of rubber to absorb any shocks and impacts. This is where the battery and engine are stored to meet the renewable energy capacity in the developing world.

Ocana says the idea for the in-wheel electric engine and batteries came as an attempt to match the intensive developments in solar and wind power that are taking place through developing regions such as Central Africa.

Ocana was sponsored by Japanese carmaker Honda through the ‘mobility for the masses’ project when he was completing his masters in vehicle design at the Royal College of Art in London.

For more visit his site.
Read our review of Monoform by Ocana.

Design Talks | 5 – 25 Scrutton Street | Old Street | Shoreditch | London | EC2A 4HJ?W | UK | www.d-talks.com | Bookshop www.d-talks.com/bookshop | Published by Banksthomas

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