Triodos Bank’s Executive Board provides a perspective on the wider world it operates in, its impact and activity in 2017 and its prospects for the future.
Vitsœ Furniture Co
What challenge was the inspiration for your project?
When I first came to Vitsœ, the company was based in Germany, and Dieter Rams, who was also head of design at Braun, was responsible for Vitsœ’s product design. Dieter is one of the foremost industrial designers of the 20th century. For him, good design is about human beings, and therefore good design would be innovative, useful, understandable, unobtrusive, long-lasting and environmentally-friendly. As a result, Vitsœ has been determined for almost 60 years to make products that last a long time; products that can be repaired and added to; products that will be timeless. It was only later – with the environmental movement growing – that I noticed Vitsœ had been addressing environmental concerns since the 1950s via the common-sense approach of designing adaptable products to last.
What was your innovation that addresses this problem?
At Vitsœ our purpose is to allow more people to live better, with less, that lasts longer. We actively encourage our customers to buy less from us because they can be safe in the knowledge that we will still be here in the future when they want to add more. We are even aware of our customers putting their Vitsœ furniture in their wills to ensure that it is valued by a particular member of the next generation. We have been identified by academics as a “sufficiency business” because we encourage our customers to buy only what they absolutely need. As a result, we do not discount or have sales because we do not have obsolete products to clear. We do not introduce new colours or models to try and stimulate short-term sales. Where possible, all of our new products are backwards compatible with the old ones, and we absolutely never build in obsolescence.
What impact has Triodos Bank had on your business?
Triodos is only one of a few financial organisations that we would actually work with. In 1973, in ‘Small is Beautiful’, EF Schumacher identified greed and envy as the root of our world’s problems. We are keen to work with those who are prepared to take a more altruistic approach. When the opportunity came up in 2014 to buy the site for our new building in Leamington Spa we felt that the best way at that stage was to go to our customers for support. We set up the Vitsœ Bond, and that's how we funded construction and occupation. Once we were in the building we approached Triodos to see if you would help us with the next phase of our growth. We had conversations with other banks but, in our heart of hearts, we knew that only Triodos would fundamentally understand what we are trying to achieve.
What impact has your business had on the sector you work in?
In a fashion-driven world Vitsœ is, – as a product and company – resolutely unfashionable. Yet, in a wonderfully ironic way, we are really loved in the fashion world. It’s similar in the world of music. There is a nice picture of David Bowie sitting in the lotus position in front of his Vitsœ shelves, for example. What’s set us apart in our sector is that we have been innovators in connecting closely with our worldwide customers – using both the internet and our own shops – so that we have direct relationships with them in more than 60 countries.
The way I think about it, we’re not really a furniture business, we just happen to make furniture. When you speak to our customers, what they are getting from us is a better quality of life. We are enriching one area of their lives where there is often stress involved – namely organising their homes. They express their confidence that Vitsœ looks after them.
What impact has your business had on the community?
We operate on the fundamental principle that business needs to make a positive contribution to the common good. That means your community needs to include your neighbours, employees, suppliers and customers. Our new headquarters in Leamington Spa is really a statement of intent. Our suppliers are mostly within 90 minutes of us, giving us a tight industrial cluster. Our building is intentionally transparent—people can see in, and we can see out. We want to connect with our community – which includes the many local schools, colleges and universities that provide our future employees.
We have created a building that puts human beings at the centre. It is made from natural materials; it is lit naturally; and it is ventilated naturally. It is designed for conversations, to minimise the need for formal meetings, and to facilitate the serendipitous human connection that will solve day-to-day problems spontaneously.
How does Triodos Bank share your vision?
The People, Planet, Profit argument that Triodos rightfully articulates fits very strongly with Vitsœ. We have to find those organisations that are set up with a wider concern for the people and our planet. Sadly, the list is desperately short. Of course, just as your body needs oxygen, food and water to survive, so your business needs profit. But profit is not the reason for a company to exist. All businesses must exist for a purpose. What we are trying to do, and what I believe Triodos is so good at, is to excel as a company doing the right thing for the right reasons – while also nudging as many people as we possibly can in this direction. It is only by doing this that we stand any chance of making the world a better place.