// 06.02.2020

introducing diederik jonkers from cantor.

We’re used to taking, making and wasting – a rhyme that spells out how destructive the linear economy is. Unfortunately, we don’t see much of the process; we see a new product, desire it, buy it, use it and throw it away. The extraction and production of the product, as well as the treatment after its perceived life, is unseen, even if we are all aware of it.

And we know the linear economy isn’t sustainable. It’s a model that relies on finite resources, consumes an incomprehensible amount of energy and decimates environments.

The circular economy, however, is challenging this dominant model. Aiming to re-define growth, eliminate waste through design and create closed loops of use that build economic, social and environmental capital, the circular economy has been gaining traction. It’s about building collective resilience for the benefit of all and breaking the belief that more is better.

And in many ways, the coronavirus pandemic is a unique opportunity for the circular economy. It’s highlighted the need for adaptive production methods that don’t rely on a long single supply chain, and the world has seen some inspiring examples of circular principles in the last few months. There is a real chance to change the foundations upon which we rebuild after the outbreak, and the circular economy is shouting to be a part of them.

Cantor is a Dutch collective of designers and manufacturers that build sustainable office furniture. From seats and tables to lights and carpets, they’re firm believers that products made through the circular economy don’t have to compromise. Beautiful, healthy and sustainable office spaces are possible, and they’re made by working together.

We talked to co-founder Diederik Jonkers about changing perceptions, the challenges of the circular economy and office furniture after coronavirus.

So, why the name Cantor and why the circular economy?

The existence of infinity was proved by the German mathematician, George Cantor, and ‘Cantor’ sounds like the Dutch word ‘kantoor’, meaning ‘office’. It’s a perfect fit. We’re a collective of Dutch designers and manufacturers that offer sustainable office interiors, and it was set up by myself and Velto. Velto is an ambitious Dutch family with forty-plus years of experience in the world of furnishing offices and they also import the German chair brand, Interstuhl.

Circular thinking is part of Interstuhl’s DNA. For decades they’ve been researching, developing and producing in environmentally friendly ways. Their production takes place in the beautiful landscape of the Swabian Alps and this closeness to nature creates a responsibility to protect and conserve the environment. Interstuhl strives to integrate and merge sustainable thinking in the company and environmental awareness is anchored in the company’s philosophy.

With Velto extending Interstuhl’s thinking to the Netherlands, the addition of Cantor was a logical idea to further those ways of thinking and making whilst bringing sustainable design collections closer to home.

Have you always been involved in sustainability?

Yes, but I haven’t been conscious of it. Separating waste, switching off lights, taking short showers, wrapping my cheese in beeswax and making window gardens made of old PET bottles have been things I’ve always done. Ellen McArthur’s TED Talk also made me realize that our current linear economy is not how it should be done. It shouldn’t be natural to stir your coffee with a plastic spoon for one second and then throw the spoon away. I take the health of the environment very seriously, but I find it easy and even enjoyable to take on sustainable habits.

The circular economy has continued to gain attention over the last decade. What have been the main drivers of this?

Besides the urgent and clear environmental issues we face, I think the growing attention within the circular economy is because of the pace of innovation and how quickly they’re becoming normalized. Solar panels, biodegradable plastics, electric vehicles and projects like The Ocean Cleanup are increasingly familiar, and they’re simple examples of more sustainable practices being integrated into society.

Also, people are more aware of their footprint, governments are setting circular goals for 2050 and companies are changing their course towards more sustainable operations as they see the economic and environmental benefits.

Cantor Circular isn’t just a supplier of circular office furniture, but a vital connection between sustainable entrepreneurs and the marketplace. Why is this needed?

We’ve noticed that tenders are often being awarded to the usual project organizers. They’re doing the same old thing over and over. To make a change, you have to give the opportunity to others who are doing things differently. Cantor has brought together many sustainable furniture designers to create a thoughtful, sustainable and functional design collection that fits offices of all types.

The designers we work with are all based in the Netherlands, so production is local and most of them integrate sheltered employment as well as materials harvested from landfills or sustainably produced bio-based virgin materials. Transparency is also a rule. We show our designers’ production process and locations, and we make every effort to develop products that make a positive contribution to people and the environment.

And that connection between circular entrepreneurs is critical to the entire idea of the circular economy. One business adopting these practices doesn’t work; for the circular economy to thrive, businesses have to come together to share ideas, waste streams, best practices and knowledge. Community is key.

It is. Cantor is a collective through and through and we involve as many of the members as we can in our decisions. We’re always talking about how to make our collective more circular; do we need to re-evaluate our designs? How can our current designs become even more sustainable? Are there new and more efficient technologies we can apply somewhere? What are our waste streams and how can reuse them? It’s a constant cycle of researching, producing and evaluating.

Waste is an interesting word. We often see it at the end of the value chain, but in reality, there’s waste across all stages. Circular businesses aim to reduce waste across the board, it’s not just about recycling old products. How does Cantor aim to do this?

Let’s use the plastic spoon to stir your coffee as an example. When producing large quantities of plastics, there’s always a lot of waste, but small deviations in the first batch of a plastic product often makes them not suitable for their intended use. So, there’s waste even at the very beginning of production. We give this plastic a new purpose in the arm shell Holm Chair.

Another designer in Cantor has created a tool that makes it possible to dry gypsum (a mineral used the likes of cement and plaster) that we’ve taken out of the system before it ends up in landfills. By then calcinating it, the gypsum crystals are re-activated and they are reused to produce this beautiful Archy lamp. In a way, we believe waste doesn’t exist.

What are the main challenges to the circular economy?

It’s structural and mental. People and companies have to change their mindset from wanting more and more and more to a mindset that refuses the need to own things we don’t have to. It’s a shift in how you perceive everything; from buying to repairing and seeing that everything around you has value. Another challenge is that we have to make this new standard together. The more we use objects from sustainable sources and the more we reuse materials, the less we deplete our planet. But it has to be a joint effort.

Do you ever find it hard working in an industry that works against other trends moving in the opposite direction? I’m thinking primarily of fast fashion, which wastes a colossal amount of material to achieve profit. But wider than that, the vast majority of people want cheap, convenient products, and that desire seems to be only growing…

Funny you should mention fashion. Last week I bought new organic white t-shirts because my old ones began to show holes. But they were six years old. I always prefer to pay more for a product that lasts longer and is made from sustainable materials. And I didn't throw away my old t-shirts. I like doing maintenance work in my spare time, so I’ll use them for that.

As to your question, yes and no. Luckily, I see more companies realizing that it’s not all about money, and many organizations have set goals of bringing about positive change for people and the environment. It could be swapping their fleet of vehicles, adding solar panels to buildings or changing their office space into a healthy, sustainable environment for employees.

At the same time, we still see that money is the determining factor for too many companies. And convincing people about the benefits of sustainability can be hard, especially when it comes to the short-term costs.

You’re also a Brand Ambassador for WeFurn, a sustainable and ergonomic office furniture leasing company. Do you think the pandemic will affect how businesses approach furnishing workspaces in the future?

We were already working on WeFurn before coronavirus, but the pandemic has accelerated everything. I think WeFurn offers a real opportunity for a business’ cash flow; monthly costs are easier to manage than a single large investment when furnishing an office. WeFurn is also a flexible service, something that will be an important aspect of workspaces in post-coronavirus times. Companies must be able to shrink and grow to survive, and this will only become clearer in the future.

How has your mindset shifted during the pandemic?

Whilst coronavirus is a genuine tragedy, it’s hard to deny that it’s also had positive effects. Even within short periods of lockdown, the earth has started to heal from human actions; a blue sky over Beijing, clear water in Venice. People are spending more time outside, they’re valuing nature more and we’ve never been so connected to each other. After things return to some kind of normal, I hope this positive, conscious mentality will spread into the home and office.

What do you want to see happen with the circular economy in the future?

A worldwide common circular economy and people throwing away their need for more.


Next read: 7 perfect pandemic pivots you can learn from.