Challenging an entire industry to go circular: a Q&A with DSM-Niaga’s Lukas Hoex

DSM-Niaga Lukas
DSM-Niaga Lukas

Introducing a new series where we take an honest look at the pioneers and challenger brands on the front lines of business transparency. Together, we’ll talk about how transparency isn’t about reaching perfection, but the journey to get there…


“Now that a business is a glass box, the brand is everything. Every person. Every process. Every value. Everything that happens, ever.” – David Mattin, Global Head of Trends & Insights at TrendWatching

Transparency is hard.

Doing the right thing is difficult.

And even with the best of intentions, navigating this new world of complete disclosure can be a wormhole – absorbing your time and energy all in the name of what’s ‘good’.

Impact takes force, sustainability feels impossible to sustain and ethics can get aggressive.

It’s certainly not for the meek or weak. It demands a profound conviction to follow through with the tenacity and diligence necessary to tackle your business and its wider supply chain.

But that’s where a challenger excels.

Still, it’s difficult. Not only being honest and opening your brand up to critics, but also tracking down all the data, information and people necessary to accurately tell your story. Mix this with the complex tech side (blockchain is hard) and the desire for perfection – and suddenly, it becomes an insurmountable task and one that many prefer to put off.

“The more information you share, the more questions arise. And some of those questions are very inconvenient.” – Lukas Hoex, Manager Strategic Growth at DSM-Niaga

DSM-Niaga Recyclable Carpets

Driven by a pursuit of “radical transparency”, DSM-Niaga came to change the game. They set out to show that materials have value, even at the end of their use, with the launch of the world’s first recyclable carpet. (For more on the massive footprint of the carpet industry or the specifics about how they’re solving this, read our latest post on the project.

We sat down with Lukas Hoex, the Manager for Strategic Growth at DSM-Niaga, at our Provenance office a day before launching their new initiative at the Ellen Macarthur Circular Economy Summit. Along with their mission to transform a wasteful industry into a more open, more circular space – he shares how transparency is a struggle and not for the faint of heart.



Transparency in 1-2-3: A Q&A with Lukas Hoex

DSM-Niaga Recyclable Carpet

1. What does transparency mean to you?

Offering as much information as possible to travel with the product, without judgment or active framing.

We have seen an increase in the sharing of sustainability information on a company level. This has been an essential part of companies being more aware of their own impact on their environmental and social context. However, as a shopper, the information is hard to check – much less even understand. Especially with larger companies, it’s difficult to connect that data to the customer in a way that helps with their purchasing decision.

At DSM-Niaga, we believe it’s time to go beyond the ‘annual report company-level impact data’, and share the information we already know on a product level. One would say it’s harder to aggregate data than to just pass it on with the product, right?

We currently focus on production batch-level information about ingredients, as well as the origin of those ingredients. We want this information to be accessible for consumers as well as professional in maintenance and recycling.

Then, the consumer can make more educated decisions, ask us questions and challenge us on the decisions we made. Additionally, recyclers can know what they have “mined” and how to introduce it in a new product with the highest added value.

This asks a lot of consumers to research and judge that level of detail.

The status quo, however, is for a company to pay so-called ‘third-parties’ to judge, and since they are all financially dependent on us as an industry, I am afraid this will only support the protection of incumbent interests.

We decided in our marketing that we, as a company, only share intentions. We want to redesign for full recyclability, and we want the healthiest materials ever used, and we want every product to come back to us at the end of use. But those are all intentions. We don’t have more than our intentions and the proof points of what we actually did.

Then the judgment is for others, for consumers, for third parties, for NGOs, for experts – and not only certifiers who are paid by the industry – but everyone should see that we’ve open up.

In the beginning, we claimed to have a 100%-circular carpet, however, we knew and our audience knew that this was just a meaningless marketing phrase.

 

2. Where did you start with your transparency journey and why?

It has always been part of our strategy. However, it became urgent when we realized that we were designing products for recyclability, but that doesn’t mean these products actually get recycled.

So the main objective was for a recycler to recognize what is in a product – because when recycling doesn’t know for sure, they aren’t going to recycle it in the way designed for. They are not going to get the highest value out of the product. And that’s not why we put all that effort in for the redesign.

The startup part of the company, before I joined and before the joint-venture was set up, was to design a product that was fully bio-based. It was a beautiful product – but it was not recyclable or biodegradable due to cross-linked ingredients. Like an egg, once cooked, one can not make a liquid egg anymore, even though it’s all bio-based. So the waste issue was not really solved, and they had to start all over from scratch.

The next design was a product that is recyclable back into a new carpet. Hence the name “Niaga” (again spelled backward). It contains man-made materials, however, a maximum of two materials connected in a reversible wast, compared to eight or more in today’s standard. And the best thing was; there is no need to add flame retardants, soil repellents or other additives with a questionable health impact (double important when materials came back into new products).

So you can imagine how, from the start, we have been proud of the limited variety of ingredients and sharing this has been a non-negotiable way of organizing our manufacturing. It’s like someone who makes fresh orange juice without preservatives – obviously, that person likes to be transparent about ingredients.

 

3. What advice would you share for others like you wanting to transform their business into a transparent one? (What was difficult? What was easy?)

First, one of the biggest learnings from this process for me is that we needed to test everything. Just knowing what you put in something, or locking on the blockchain, doesn’t mean that you have the total picture at the end. And you cannot really do mass balance, because the tricky ingredients are added in the lowest quantities.

So my advice is to have either enough test equipment ready at the end of production or collaborate with an external test organization that you trust.

Second, while the marketing value was recognized very quickly, only later did we all realize the added accountability. It’s not just showing that you’re part of something great – it also distributes accountability in a different way over the value chain. This requires good preparation with every company involved.

Lastly, most information is already out there. Connecting different systems for a good information flow throughout value chains has been a challenge since the trade emerged, I guess. I experienced how these systems are not set up for information preparation beyond the world of companies, so there is a risk of setting up a whole new parallel information flow.

I hope we can all work to prevent this, for reasons of workload, and most of all to prevent cheating in a parallel accounting system.

DSM Tracking Recyclable Carpets on the Blockchain

🔎 Want to see how this all works? Follow the journey of DSM-Niaga’s carpet as it moves across our public blockchain.

 


Read more about other challenger brands and see the steps they took to transform their businesses with transparency.