It is difficult to overestimate the importance of furniture in our lives.
We literally live our lives on furniture, but we often don’t realize what impact our chosen furniture has on the planet in terms of chemicals, greenhouse gases and material waste.
Phantila Phataraprazit learned about sustainability early in life and wanted to build the kind of sustainable brand she would be proud to buy, so she decided to do something about it and became a co-founder Sabai Design, a sustainable furniture manufacturing company.
Contains insights from Buffer’s small business, big lessons podcast episode seven, and following an unpublished interview, Phantila shared how Sabai got started, what she and her team are doing to incorporate sustainability into every business practice, and how to build trust with the Sabai community.
The beginning of sustainability
Phantila had a unique experience that led her to sustainability: she lived in an eco house founded and run by her parents in Thailand.
This experience showed her how critical sustainability is not only for business, but also for preserving the natural beauty of our world. As a result, Phantila often says she is willing to prioritize sustainability above all else, that she is willing to pay more, and even give up aesthetic taste in the name of sustainability.
However, this approach was no longer sufficient. She valued sustainability, but she also wanted to live the life of her choice, not dictated by a small supply of “sustainable” items. And one area stands out, both from a sustainability perspective and from a design perspective: furniture.
“Not only are tons of valuable resources invested in the production of these products, but at the same time, every year, over nine million tons of furniture waste ends up in landfills,” Phantila said. “At the same time, many furniture products include toxic materials and chemicals that are released and end up in our bloodstream are also dangerous to humans in general.”
An entrepreneur at heart, Phantila wanted to start a sustainable furniture company not only to solve her problem, but also to make it easier for others to live more sustainable lives. However, she knew she had to focus on more than just material sustainability.
“The company’s whole mission is to think about sustainability as comprehensively as possible,” Phantila said.
In particular, she co-founded Sabai Design with four key outcomes in mind:
Accessibility: Sustainability was often used as a reason to charge higher prices, but Phantila wanted to build a business where items were quite cheap and affordable.
Convenience: Sustainability should not be at the expense of convenience, so the team worked to make it easy to buy and receive their products.
Aesthetically: Products should have a clear aesthetic that is appealing to people in relation to the use of sustainability to justify limited aesthetics.
Sustainability: Not only the sustainability of the product itself, but also the entire life cycle of the business and the product.
“We realized that for most people, if pieces or products are not aesthetically pleasing, affordable, practical, then sustainability is not important to them.” said Phantila. “And so we kind of realized that you can’t really ask people to make sacrifices about these things if they really want to influence you.”
Incorporating sustainability into every business practice
While Phantila was building Sabai Design, she consciously considered its four pillars of accessibility, convenience, aesthetics and sustainability. In particular, ensuring that the entire business behaves in accordance with these pillars as opposed to just using sustainability in product development.
Throughout Sabai’s business, Phantila and the team have been thinking about embedding sustainability.
Design: Each product is built in modular pieces. This means that if something breaks down or needs to be replaced, it can be done without the need to throw out or replace the whole thing.
Delivery: The company seeks to minimize the transportation required to procure and deliver its products, thereby reducing greenhouse gas emissions as a result of business growth.
End of product life: Sabai not only manages its own purchase and sale of used products, but also donates products that are not sold after three months.
“We are definitely conducting recurring audits or analyzes of our products to make sure there are no areas we are missing out on in terms of being able to limit the impact of our products or incorporating new, innovative materials into our products,” Phantila said.
This mentality, fortunately, is not exclusive to Sabai. Other brands like Paynter Jacket Co also consciously think about waste and sustainability and work on it in innovative ways. In the case of Paynter, the company only releases its jackets four times a year. For Sabai, sustainable growth begins with listening carefully to customers. After all, Phantila explained, creating things that people don’t want will only produce more waste.
“When it comes to product design, we do a lot of surveys, a lot of surveys to make sure we design and produce products that people actually want because after all, if we produce things that people don’t want, it’s waste in a different way,” Phantila said. .
Transparency builds trust and business growth
After years of building Sabai, Phantila is well aware that sustainability is not a big bang. You misunderstood, as she did many times. But the key to continuing the journey, Phantila said, is honesty and transparency.
She worries when she hears that market companies are “sustainable” because one element of the business is a little more environmentally friendly than usual. For her, building along with sustainability also means sharing what you do with your community. This is ultimately a great tool for building community, but Phantila said it’s also about education – she doesn’t assume people know about sustainability across entire business models, so she uses Sabai as a working example of what the process looks like.
When Sabai misses the target, Phantila is also honest with her community. While this may seem like the wrong way to build a business, Phantila said it creates a lot of trust and compassion in customers, which means they are more forgiving and give the freedom to get the company back on track.
“The amount of transparency we have with our customers definitely creates a lot of trust because they understand that we are doing things that are new, that don’t necessarily have a roadmap for them and that we are trying to improve the impact of our products,” Phantila said. “And so it creates so much goodwill in our community and gives us a lot of room to be honest with them about the things we try and the things we try.”