Vestre was making furniture that lasts long before sustainability became a universal concern, with park benches built in 1950s still standing strong against the harsh weather of Haugesund, a coastal town in southwest Norway. Today, the company is planning to open the world’s most environmentally friendly furniture factory – the largest single investment in the Norwegian furniture industry for decades.
Changing the world, one bench at a time
What started as a family business over 70 years ago has turned into what Jan Christian Vestre, grandson of the company founder, calls a ‘democratic project’. When he took over as the CEO at age 25, he laid out a forward-looking vision for the company, not only as an endeavor to safeguard the environment, but as a commitment to make the world a better place.
“Some people find that naïve, but I don’t care because naïve people change the world,” says Vestre. “It will take trillions of dollars to eradicate poverty, to stop climate change and to reduce inequality between people in the world. We are part of all that.” Vestre sees the company as a tool to change the world – by creating caring meeting spaces, proving that manufacturing industry is part of the ‘green shift’, and taking part in financing social sustainability.
Sustainability is not only ingrained into Vestre’s ethos – it is the driving force behind the company’s business and operating models. Vestre continuously challenges the manufacturing process, with factories in Norway and Sweden running on renewable energy harnessed from solar panels. By 2025, the company aims to feed at least 20 percent of their surplus energy back to the grid, and in ten years’ time, plans to operate with zero emissions altogether. Vestre’s latest project, The Plus factory to be built in Norway, will generate 250,000 kWh of renewable energy and have at least 50 percent lower greenhouse gas emissions than comparable factories.
“When it comes to the ‘green shift’, the manufacturing industry is not part of the problem, we are actually part of the solution,” says Vestre, adding that the company – without exception – sources the most sustainable materials available, putting quality and environment above price. The Swedish steel used in Vestre furniture is produced with 30 percent less CO2 emissions compared to cheaper alternatives from other parts of the world, and recycled aluminum from Norsk Hydro is considered to be the ‘greenest’ in the world.
“When we choose materials, we achieve emission reduction in our own products, but we also challenge the steel and aluminum industries in the right way,” Vestre says.
Sustaining the business
Even though Jan Christian Vestre has more than tripled the company’s turnover since taking the helm in 2012, proving that a business can be both profitable and sustainable, he says that profitability is not the key priority. “It’s much more important to do things right, and with a long-term approach.”
Thinking long-term is one of the reasons why Vestre donate 10 percent of their yearly profits to finance sustainable projects around the world. “If all Norwegian companies acted like Vestre and donated 10 percent of their profits, the Norwegian business sector would have matched the country’s entire foreign aid budget twice over,” Vestre says.
But how to strike the balance between sustaining the business and safeguarding the environment?
“We need to challenge some of our economic models,” says Vestre. Companies that are not willing to rethink their approach may not survive in the long term, he adds, pushed by younger generations that have higher expectations and bigger demands when it comes to the environment.
Vestre products are manufactured in high-cost Scandinavian countries and come with a lifetime warrantee. “Our advisors tell us it’s crazy, but I am certain about the quality and I know we are doing the right thing,” says Vestre. “We do all these things and still we are profitable. Maybe some companies think too much about profits, maybe they should think more about their impact and how they can contribute to the greater good. I think they would be profitable then.”
Pushing the limits, closing the loop
Climate crisis, Vestre believes, is tightly linked to what he calls a resource crisis – producing poor quality products and throwing them away, creating waste. “We cannot continue in this way,” he states.
The design industry is driven by trends, and there is a push to have new products released every year – not a sustainable approach when fully functional furniture needs to be replaced because it’s ‘out of style’. Vestre operates with what the company calls ‘Vision Zero’ – making zero products that don’t ‘last forever’.
It isn’t enough that Vestre push the limits its own environmental performance. With 150 of the company’s products carrying the Nordic Swan Ecolabel – the official recognition for products produced sustainably in Nordic countries – Vestre challenges the organization to make their criteria even stricter.
The company takes it even further, asking their customers to increase their requirements towards Vestres’s sustainable practices, as well as the lifecycle costs of products: “Not only should we provide our customers with information about the costs of products after, say, ten years, but we should also have the legal responsibility to live up to our promise to deliver products that last forever. Imagine what a revolution there would be if companies made sure they made products with a long lifespan.”
“We are testing out new business model where we can return old and worn furniture to our factory, paint it, replace spare parts, make it look like new – and then sell, rent or lease it to a new project. This way, what feels old-fashioned for one, could be new and relevant to another.”
This circular approach, Vestre says, can help the company reduce their own energy consumption by up to 80 percent. Another measure helping Vestre to optimize operations – and cut emissions as a result – is investing in new technology.
The company’s factory in Torsby, Sweden, uses ABB’s welding robots, which, Vestre acknowledges, have taken the factory productivity up compared to manual production. “One of our best-selling products, of which we make thousands every year, used to take 25 minutes to weld together. Now, with ABB robots, it takes less than four minutes,” says Vestre.
“In 2025, we aim to be the largest street furniture supplier in Europe. We aim to be recognized as the most sustainable furniture brand in the world. And we don’t want to move any manufacturing out of Scandinavia. By saying that we are going to be the biggest, greenest and still have manufacturing in high-cost countries, we have to think about productivity and invest in new technologies.”
Building a business case for marine plastic waste
In parallel to running a sustainable business, Vestre is exploring other environmental initiatives, such as collaborating with the Norwegian research organization SINTEF on developing materials from ownerless ocean plastic waste.
“At Vestre, we don’t use plastic in our manufacturing – all our products are based on metals and wood. But we are in this project because we want to promote and investigate the business opportunities it can offer,” Vestre says.
The project, which has become a full-fledged company called Ogoori, looks into establishing value chains – collecting and recycling the plastic, making new products out of it, and leasing and tracing them to make sure they don’t end up in the ocean 50 years from now.
“We have already done some tests at the SINTEF lab in Trondheim, and the quality of the recycled plastic is much better than we had hoped for,” Vestre says. “We have some models printed out of 3D plastic, and the quality is very good. The material is very honest when it comes to color variations – you get what you put into it.”
If the results continue to be promising, Vestre may consider using recycled ocean plastic in their own products: “It is also a question about product development – adding new materials and technologies.”
Setting a clean course
Evolution, or rather, revolution in technology is something Vestre believes can set not only industrial, but also developing countries on course for clean energy: “Why should they invest in fossil fuels when they can go directly to renewables? We can lift more people out of poverty, but do it in a sustainable way.”
That doesn’t, however, mean stopping economic growth: “I think it’s close to ridiculous to say we should end economic growth. If we tell the developing countries that they will not have the same life quality as us, we will never get them on board.”
What Vestre advocates for is sharing economic growth and disconnecting it from the use of natural resources, had he is putting the company forward as an example: “We produce our own solar energy, we use trucks powered by the latest generation of bio fuel, and we hope to transition to electric trucks very soon. We source the greenest steel and aluminum in the world, and our factories are fossil-free.” In 2019, the Vestre Group delivered growth of 20 percent and decreased their emissions by 10 percent, meaning that they are both growing and reducing their own emissions: “Exactly what I mean by disconnecting economic growth from the use of resources,” Vestre confirms.
Another crucial aspect of their philosophy, Vestre says, is that ignoring the new generation that demands addressing climate change with concrete actions is no longer an option. The generation that environmental activist Greta Thunberg represents will be “extremely powerful in 5-10 years from now,” he says. “They will be represented in all parliaments of the world, in all aspects of decision making. They don’t compromise anymore.”
The rise of a new generation of decision makers gives Vestre reason for optimism: “We will see major changes within five years, and people and companies that don’t get it will not be in business five years from now. This is why we need new economic models – to be able to make the right decisions on a long-term basis.”
In the end, Vestre believes, companies that lead the way in terms of sustainability will have happy customers. “They can also improve their profits. By running operations sustainably, they can save resources and energy, and use less materials, getting more out of what they invest as a result.”
Sustainable development and green growth shouldn’t represent a threat, but rather a “huge business opportunity,” Vestre says. It’s a matter of perspective: “We can question if we have the courage to go in that direction, or see the business opportunities that this approach will open. That’s how we think about it – amazing business opportunities, if you do things right.”