The trend from Milan: a circular economy. Really!

After every Milan Design Week remains the same: hundreds of memories, thousands of publications in the media, contracts worth millions of euros and… tons of rubbish. However, this year, after seeing the exhibition “Really: designing materials for circularity”, visitors could leave Italy with the hope that the next decade will bring us profitable businesses based on a circular economy, with no place to generate endless amount of waste.

About principles of a circular economy, on the example of furniture boards and acoustic panels made of recycled textiles, I spoke in Milan with Wickie Meier Engström, the Director and Partner at the Danish company Really. A circular economy is more and more frequently discussed subject at design and architecture exhibitions and on media. Beyond growing popularity, can we expect that in the 2020s it will also become a common, profitable business?
Wickie Meier Engström: As many principles of a circular economy will become key to some companies in the next decade, we will see and hear a lot about this business model. One of the drivers of this trend is the scarcity of resources. Some materials will become unavailable or much more expensive than they are today. But a circular economy is not only about materials – it’s also about keeping a strong relationship with customers.

Global brands such as H&M and IKEA are aware that their current business models are neither sustainable nor best for them, and they will have to change their strategies. They also know they obtain many valuable resources they just throw away today. It’s easy to say to re-use them, but in practice, circularity is not simple and has many different faces. A circular economy needs time to go mainstream, even longer than the second decade of 21st century.

Brands such us adidas already boast about using ocean plastic to make limited editions of “eco-friendly” shoes. Isn’t it just about good PR?
A pair of sneakers made of ocean plastic? Of course, it is a part of a marketing campaign. Otherwise, it wouldn’t be featured in so many media. But I think that’s fine, because adidas is preparing customers for what will eventually come. Step by step, projects such as famous „ocean plastic shoes”, start a change in people’s mindset.

There are a lot of good things behind the scenes that customers don’t know about. Paradoxically, companies don’t talk about them too much. If they reveal them, they would also expose that the most of the products they make today are bad for the environment. They work hard to change it, but they do this in silence.

Companies urge to reduce waste and energy consumption. They talk about being green, but at the end of the day, it is about saving their money. And that it’s OK.

Are furniture and clothes we buy today recyclable?
In practice, a lot of furniture and fashion designs consist of too many blended materials to be recycled. It is too difficult to separate and reuse them. Designers and producers combine materials without thinking of what should be mixed. It especially concerns products designed for outdoor usage. Gore-Tex fabric, for example, contains extremely harsh chemicals, and can’t be recycled. This material must be handled as a highly toxic fraction, with all precautions following this.

A good material is a material that can be reused without bigger effort. Not necessarily in the same kind of a product. The recycled material at least could be used as a construction material, isolation, etc. However, it is not cheap to reuse anything.

Your idea is to reuse old fabrics to produce furniture boards.
That is correct. Our main product is a furniture board as big as 3 by 1.1 metres. So-called Solid Textile Boards are made of recycled fabrics. We do not produce furniture. We want design companies to buy boards from us and then make furniture out of them.

Here in Milan, we show some furniture pieces designed by Max Lamb, as we want to inspire other designers and companies to understand what can be made of Really boards. We show how different and unique, and at the same time, how similar, Solid Textile Boards are in comparison to standard boards.

Where do you source old fabrics?
The main parts of cotton and wool are sourced from Danish industrial laundries that serve for hospitals, hotels, restaurants, nursery homes, and so on. In other words, a towel that you use in a hotel when you visit Denmark someday may become a furniture.

The amount of old fabrics discarded every year is massive. Unsurprisingly, there is no second-hand market for old towels or bed sheets. Usually, they are incinerated or landfilled. We prefer to recycle them and give them a new life and value.

Recycling process usually consumes a lot of water, energy and chemicals, so it is not as super green as we usually think.
When you want to reprocess an old textile into a new textile, indeed you have to use a lot of water and chemicals. But our strategy is different.

In Really, we do not dye anything. The colour of every board depends on colours of recycled fabrics. Fibres used for making the top layer are picked and blended more considerably to define the final colour. Inner layers are made of more random colours fibres.

Believe me or not, but we do not use water in the production process. Well, maybe except the steam used in the compressing machine, but there the water is kept in a closed loop. The steam never touches the material.

Thirdly, fabrics are not heavy materials to mill, and we process a lot of them in a short time. The process does not require a huge amount of power. Moreover, the entire production is made in Denmark, where about half of electricity is generated out of renewable resources.

“Made in Denmark”. That sounds expensive.
Indeed, the Solid Textile Board from Really is no the cheapest one. But in Really and Kvadrat – by the way, Kvadrat, the global leading manufacturer of design textiles, co-owns Really – we target furniture manufacturers who produce a high-quality design that lasts over time. High-quality products made in Denmark are not cheap.

We will not move our production to Asia. We don’t want to produce materials for the rest of the world. We want the rest of the world to produce materials for themselves.

On the other hand, I have an idea about connecting Really and Kvadrat with IKEA and H&M. Why can’t we do together some nice, affordable kitchen doors for IKEA out of re-used textiles sourced from H&M? That would be great!

I guess that Really boards are recyclable.
Yes, they are, but it’s very important to understand that every recycling process degrades the quality of fibres. In circularity, we look at cascading levels of the material lifespan. At every step, fibres can take another form. When we mill our boards into a fibre level again, we do not create new boards out of them. We bring them into an acoustic matt called Acoustic Textile Felt.

Generally speaking, in circularity, you should have more product applications where you can use the same material on a different level of its lifespan. It does not mean that every generation of final products made of a given recycled material must be cheaper comparing to the previous one. For example, acoustic panels carry a quite high value on the market, as they improve people’s lives.

Does the fabric keep its value?
No, fabrics do not keep the value. Second-hand cotton, for example, is almost worthless. A value is created in the processing of a given material and carried in a final product, not in the material itself.

Let’s say, I have a piece of furniture made of a Really board. After, for example, ten years, I want to get rid of it and buy a new furniture. Who should I call to take the old piece back? A retailer? A producer? Someone from Really?
First of all, if the furniture is not damaged, you should resell it to someone else. Recycling materials should be done at the very end. And when that final moment comes, the reverse logistics should start working.

Today, furniture companies are very good at sending things out. A material is being sold to a furniture company, then new products go to a retailer, where consumers buy new stuff. That is strongly established supply chain we all know very well.

The question is: why can’t we be good at sending things back as well? It’s important for furniture makers and retailers to built a strong relation with their customers. Brand should give customers incentives to make them come back and place new orders and to restrain them from going to another brand or store. The circular economy may help to raise brand loyalty.

Maybe, instead of selling furniture, people can lease them? Or, even subscribe them for a monthly fee? This is a business model you can already find in other industries such as IT, lighting, and even fashion. However, there is no single way that is perfect for everyone.

Really was established a few years ago. Why has nobody heard of this company before?
The director, which is actually me, likes when action talks. I heard of too many unrealized concepts for the better of the world in my life, about things that should be done, but never have been done. I don’t want to talk too much before I do something.

There is a big difference between having an idea and having a business. Now Really has brought an idea to realization, we have engaged partners and now also customers. I’m happy and excited about going out of the shadow here in Milan. Really is ready. We can do business, and speak to other companies, designers, and press.

Well, my blog is tiny. I can’t make you famous. Sorry.
That’s fine, we don’t want to be famous. We just want to do what we are good at, and encourage people to choose materials based on circular economy principles.


If you have any questions regarding Really or circular economy, please send an email directly to Wickie Meier Engström at

Main picture by Angela Moore. Other photos above by taken at the exhibition “Really: designing materials for circularity” that run in Milan 4-9 April 2017. More than 100 pictures from different events of Milan Design Week 2017 you can find on my Instagram account.

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