Can you imagine that the gold medals at this year’s upcoming Olympic Games in Tokyo will be made from e-waste? Well, they will be. Alex Lawson writes in the London Evening Standard about a business venture about closed loop manufacturing. What are your views?
The duo using waste to take the climate change fight upmarket
Like many, the realisation of Jamie Hall’s dreams will come at this summer’s Olympics in Tokyo. But while most will be hoping to achieve their vision on the track, field or in the pool, it’s the podium he’s most bothered about.
Hall’s business, Pentatonic, operates “closed loop manufacturing”, making products from waste materials, then ensuring they’re recyclable when consumers have finished with them. The gold medals at this year’s Games will be made from e-waste — used tech like old mobile phones — manufactured from donations from the Japanese public.
He says: “The most prestigious product on Earth, an Olympic gold medal, will be made using materials that had a previous life. That will be the most mainstream demonstration of what can be made using surplus materials that there could possibly be.”
Hall has been running Pentatonic, which has 14 staff, with his business partner Johann Boedecker since 2016 from London and Berlin. We meet at the company’s box-fresh co-working offices in Shoreditch (naturally), after a recent move from an old shoe factory in Hackney. Hall, a Brighton-born Stoke Newington resident, looks more like a DJ or music industry executive than a green entrepreneur: a snakes and ladders tattoo ripples down his forearm, a chunky bearhead ring on his hand. A chain with the recycling logo on gives a clue to his occupation.
The business has two strands — selling products direct to consumers online and creating products in conjunction with big brands, including Burger King, Starbucks and Hall’s former employer Nike.
Each product is unique: he proudly shows me a dark green cap made entirely from polyester made for accessories giant New Era; and The Infinity Hanger, made from recycled PET, which several fashion firms used to replace the typical plastic or laminate wood hanger. “It’s a boring product that no fashion brand can survive without, so we looked at what they waste and made a hanger from it — matching a product to a need.”
Consumers are urged to recycle the product when they’re finished with it, with Pentatonic paying around 10-15% of its value when it’s returned. The firm uses its clients’ factories to create the products from existing waste there, potentially cutting costs and boosting revenues. Hall admits that creating new items from scratch and the “early stages of research and development can be very frustrating — it’s not easy to make products in a way that has never been done before”.
Pentatonic appears to have hit a sweet spot, with a David Attenborough and Extinction Rebellion-fuelled wave of public opinion spurring the sustainability movement. “We have broken ground by making premium products. There was definitely a time in the 2000s that if you had a material that was recycled it was hessian, it was brown paper, it was granola and it was a bit tree-huggery and that’s where sustainability started out and it just wasn’t desirable in any way, y. You didn’t associate it with anything other than doing the right thing.”
Hall spotted a shift in opinion while working on products at Nike in Portland, and worked on testing some sustainable products with Boedecker. The German, who runs the Berlin office, had stumbled across matters green during eight years in Taiwan. He says businesses on the Asian island were early adopters of using their waste as it helped them cut down on costs, including the extra burden of shipping in raw materials. “That’s something that Britain will experience, getting rid of the waste costs more, getting raw materials in costs more,” he says.
A recent handbrake turn has been the keenness of corporates to hail the sustainability of their products and supply chain.
Does Pentatonic risk playing a part in greenwashing? “We insist on there being a creation element, every project has to be grounded on creation of a product using waste materials. We do get a lot of approaches to do research or consulting that do feel a bit greenwash-y with no obvious end point in mind,” says Hall.
Initially they raised £4.3 million when the business was founded as an online furniture seller but completed a management buyout in 2018, focussing on its technology and raising another €2.5 million (£2.12 million).
The Anglo-German pair, along with a private family office investor, are the majority shareholders. They’re cagey on revenues but say they have confirmed contracts worth £29 million over the next 18 months.
Pentatonic’s musical moniker is a nod to the fact that “hands are the key to the survival of the world and it comes down to the five digits on your hands,” says Hall. With the world’s biggest companies scrambling to become green, this pair appear happy to get their hands dirty in the climate change fight.