Leading the way on sustainability, one neighbourhood at a time
When Jan Christian Vestre was just 25 years old in 2012, his father tragically got cancer and died suddenly, turning the young man’s life and career upside-down. “We were left with two options,” Jan Christian recalls. “Either find someone outside the company, with better knowledge, more professional experience and better education, to run the company – but they wouldn’t be from the family; or actually do it myself.”
When it came down to it, the decision was an easy one. As a child, he had always played around with his father’s business cards. “His name was Jan and my name is Jan Christian, so I used to take his business cards and just add ‘Christian’ between ‘Jan’ and ‘Vestre’,” he says, with a chuckle. Now, he would have to do it for real – taking on from his father the joint job titles of owner and CEO.
The company in question, Vestre, was founded by Jan Christian’s grandfather as a small machine shop in the small Norwegian town of Haugesund back in 1947. It was Jan Christian’s parents who decided to move the business to Oslo towards the end of the ‘80s and to pivot towards a focus on urban and street furniture. The company has specialised in manufacturing such products ever since and has grown into one of the leading players in Europe. Its benches, outdoor tables and recycling bins can be seen across the continent and even as far afield as New York and California.
Much of this growth has occurred since Jan Christian took over the family business eight years ago. “Since then, we have tripled the turnover,” he says. “We have established in a lot of new markets; we now have employees in New York, Berlin and London. Our aim is to be the number one provider of social furniture in Europe – and we are on our way to getting there actually.”
For him, however, profits are not the highest priority. Jan Christian believes passionately in the mission of Vestre, which revolves around the social good it can do in communities and neighbourhoods around the world. “Furniture to us is a tool for something bigger,” he says. “Our mission is to bring people together, create caring and social meeting places – we call them arenas for everyday democracy – where people can meet, get to know each other, and share stories and ideas.” He sees Vestre’s products as one part of the solution for many of our society’s gravest ills – polarisation, “us and them thinking”, and loneliness.
The one unavoidable global problem for him, though, is the climate crisis, and one of his great frustrations is the common gap between words and actions. “There’s way too much talk about these issues today,” he says. “I want to see action, real action.” In this regard, Vestre is really leading from the front, manifesting the world it wants to see. The company is currently building a new factory, nicknamed The Plus, which will become – by some margin – the world’s most environmentally friendly furniture factory. Currently under construction in Magnor in eastern Norway, it will reduce CO2 emissions by 50 per cent compared to a similar brand-new factory elsewhere in the world, and is the first furniture factory globally to receive an Outstanding certification from the Breeam sustainability assessor.
The building itself, designed by the Danish firm Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG), is made from recycled reinforced steel, low-carbon concrete and cross-laminated locally sourced timber. With solar panels, heat exchangers and a highly advanced energy system, The Plus will use just 10 per cent of the energy used by a comparable new factory. And to cap it off, the company has invested in a fleet of electric Tesla semi-trucks to transport goods between its two largest production facilities in Norway and Sweden. “So we will produce our own renewable energy from the sun and recharge our semi-trucks, meaning we will have zero emissions between the factories,” says Jan Christian.
It really is a remarkable effort – and this is before you even go into all the ways that Vestre manufactures its products using recycled and sustainable materials, regardless of extra cost. Why do it all? “We want to prove that it’s possible,” says Jan Christian bluntly. “When we have showed the world that this is actually possible – we can manufacture things with a long lifespan, that are sustainable in all aspects, and at the same time create new jobs and be profitable – I mean, come on, then everyone can do it.”
Another way in which Jan Christian places ethics above profit is in his approach to so-called hostile design, the use of architecture and street furniture to restrict behaviour, the most commonly cited example being the use of spikes on flat surfaces to prevent homeless people from sleeping on them. “We refuse to do those projects, which means that we’re losing projects worth millions every year,” he says, “but we believe that it’s simply not democratic to have spikes in our cities.”
It is a profoundly different way of operating as a business. “Return on investment – we’re not spending many hours on that,” says Jan Christian, with a smile. “Decision-making processes are very much based on our gut feeling.” He says he can’t remember “the last time I said no to any creative idea from any of my colleagues”. It’s a far cry from the language of efficiency and optimisation that you hear in many business quarters.
Jan Christian feels he is able to take all of these decisions – long-term, slow to yield results, prioritising principle over profit – because he runs a family-owned company, because his name matches the name above the door. “Honestly,” he says, “I don’t think I would have kept my job as the CEO of Vestre if we were owned by a company and they knew that I was refusing to do projects involving hostile design.” Similarly, he’s not convinced that more profit-driven shareholders would understand why Vestre sources expensive sustainable steel, aluminium and wood, when there are cheaper alternatives on the market.
Then, of course, there is The Plus. “Thinking about return on investment,” he continues. “I’m not even sure it’s worth it in traditional economic models.” He pauses, before adding: “But that’s not why we’re doing it.”