Plastic is bad for the environment and our health. It contains carcinogenic additives and causes hormone disturbances. Furthermore, plastic drives the world’s dependency on fossil fuels, which is the single-biggest cause of carbon emissions. But in today’s world, plastic surrounds us. It seems to be a necessary evil, right?
Certainly not. Thankfully, there are environmental advocates like Peo Åkesson who spend their lives trying to find ways to eliminate unnecessary plastics. Åkesson, CEO of Sustainable Cards, has been working diligently for years to eliminate the use of plastic cards.
Interestingly, Åkesson’s initial career path had nothing to do with environmental issues. He worked in banking, financing capital equipment investments in the hospitality sector. Said Åkesson, “I got tired of the greed within the banking industry and the constant chase of short term profits. I saw a glimmer of hope since some of my financing activities were related to sustainability efforts, and I was longing for change. I wanted a higher purpose for my life.”
In 2005, Åkesson took a trip to Sweden and stayed in a hotel where they used wooden key cards. He thought, “Everyone knows wood is better than plastic,” and he was intrigued. When Åkesson called the owner of the company and learned that the cards were unique to the hotel, he became completely taken with the idea of expanding their use, and felt that he had found his calling. Åkesson bought 2,000 cards from the owner for 25 cents each, hoping to market them when he returned to the US.
Upon returning to Denver, Åkesson approached a large hotel operator in Colorado, since he knew that they were generally eco-friendly. But while they liked the idea, they balked at the price. They didn’t want to pay 28 cents per card when plastic cards cost only pennies each.
Åkesson partnered with the card company’s owner and became obsessed with finding ways to reduce the cost of manufacturing the wood cards. It took three years to finalize a new process. During that time, Åkesson discovered that Nordic birch was the best wood for the cards. He sourced the wood from sustainably managed forests, so that using the wood does not contribute to the deforestation of our planet. In fact, since dead and dying timber actually emit CO2, using mature trees from sustainably-managed forests in Scandinavia actually has a net positive impact on the environment.
The manufacturing process uses 30 percent less energy than the manufacture of plastic cards, and the cards contain no harmful additives. There is no waste in the manufacturing process, since the company recycles wood scrap to provide heat and hot water.
Since the new card prototype was developed and the improved manufacturing processes were implemented, two independent firms have verified that the cards currently being manufactured are more sustainable than PVC, bio-plastic, or recycled plastic. But here’s the best statistic: if all of the world’s PVC cards were replaced by Åkesson’s wood cards, the carbon-footprint of the card-making industry would be reduced by over seventy percent and toxic chemicals and additives would be completely removed. And all of these benefits could be had for a mere incremental cost of pennies per card.
While this low incremental cost would have very little impact on a hotel’s overall profitability, Åkesson is struggling to have his product accepted because of the strong focus of procurement departments to buy solely on price, without considering environmental benefits. “The challenge is to articulate the benefits of buying sustainable products to a market motivated more by price than by provenance,” commented Åkesson.
Sustainable Cards isn’t only targeting the hotel key card market; their ultimate goal is to capture the entire plastic card market. The cards can carry magnetic stripes, RFID chips, bar codes, scratch-off panels and signature panels, enabling the cards to be used as gift cards, membership cards, loyalty cards, and special event cards. Sustainable Cards also notes that while paper cards are better than plastic, the process to make paper is still energy-intensive and uses many additives, and wood cards are more durable.
The quality of the cards is outstanding, and they are visually appealing as well. Åkesson first noticed that the wood cards are eye catching when he saw the cards in Sweden. He said that whenever a hotel guest received a key the first time, the guest was like, “Oh wow, what’s this? This is interesting!” They really liked them. What’s more, the cards can be aesthetically customized to suit a business’s preference. For example, cards created for Ameron Hotels were given a natural, earthy look. Conversely, cards created for a special event for Omni Hotels bore a hot pink stripe, and cards created for Barista Fair Trade Coffee had photographed images printed on them. Åkesson was kind enough to make business cards for Conscious Connection. Indeed, the quality and beauty of the cards is something special.
Building Sustainable Cards into a Sustainable Business
Despite the successes Sustainable Cards has had with developing the material and product and establishing a scalable and reliable manufacturing process, the company is still losing money and relies on passionate and understanding investors who also want to make a difference. While Åkesson is thrilled that his company’s accomplishments have had a positive impact on the world, as of this moment Åkesson is frustrated that Sustainable Cards is not yet a sustainable business.
But the size of the card market is stunning: 30 billion plastic cards are made every year, and over half of that volume is single-use cards. Says Åkesson, “We need to start capturing that market. So far, our business model has been to approach procurement departments of companies to introduce our products. Unfortunately, it seems that many companies say they want to go green, but what they don’t say is that they don’t want to incur additional costs; they want consumers to pay for it. So they tell us they can’t cost-justify our cards.”
Åkesson believes that there are two ways Sustainable Cards can gain traction. First, he is emphatic that all businesses need to be responsible for their environmental impact. They need to be willing to shave their profits a smidge here and there in order to be more eco-friendly. Green before greed.
The second route is via consumers. If enough consumers demanded these cards, businesses would give in. But how many consumers understand the environmental impact of plastic cards? And how many consumers know about wooden key or gift cards? That’s an education gap that needs to be filled, and so reaching out to consumers is next on their agenda.