Isabel Aagaard is a co-founder and designer of LastObject. When she and her team discovered the harmful effects of single-use cotton swabs on the environment, they started working on a solution to fix it. They design innovative solutions to wasteful habits that make a lasting positive impact and have already launched four products that replace single-use cotton rounds, tissues and face masks.
Will Richardson 00:04
Welcome to the Green Element Podcast where we meet business leaders and innovators, transforming their operations to be more environmentally and socially sustainable, and in the process help you on your journey of sustainability. I'm your host, will Richardson. So, Isabel is trying to eliminate single-use items by creating reusable sustainable alternatives. She is a designer by trade and eco-conscious by nature. She founded Last Object in 2018 and launched Last Swab in 2019. Whilst all this was going on, she had a baby boy. In their words, our products must have at least 10 times real environmental impact versus the traditional single-use products they replace Isabel, welcome. Where did these ideas come from?
Isabel Aagaard 00:52
I was in an office space with two other designers, one of them being my brother. And we three actually just we design a lot of different things. I was working in the medical industry, and they were more in like kitchenware. And I think that we just started like a very open dialogue about what we wanted to do in life, it was actually quite broad. So the whole spark, the whole idea, the whole passion actually started from a place that was more about what kind of designers do we want to be and less about what is the product that we're going to create? So the vision came from wanting to do something different, do something better and do something that was massively better for the environment, and that is eliminating single-use items. So we just started from one list.
Will Richardson 01:46
But, you know, what was it about the air thing? I guess what was envisioned basically, what was it about the air spot that made you go down that route, first?
Isabel Aagaard 02:01
Well, I think that we were, we were kind of shocked when we started reading up on single-use items, but especially when we started looking at the cotton swab, because it's such a little element, it's something that is so, you know, you have it, or I had it in my bathroom when I started reading up on it. And, I never looked at it and thought like, Oh my god, I'm actually you know, creating a lot of waste there. I'm actually, I have something that actually is making a lot of harm, and not only because that it is produced and shipped and, used, and the qualities or the materials that are used to make single-use items are not the best. And it's placed in my bathroom, and then I use it and then I throw it out. But it's also improperly thrown out for most people to throw them in their toilets. And I did that. It's so shameful. But I did not know that that was not something you were supposed to do. And I understood that like, you know, don't put a tampon in there. There were a lot of things that I've understood, but not because I thought it was so small, I didn't see the harm in it. And that is also a lot of, but there is big harm in it. And the big harm is that it is because it is so small that it is harmful because it goes through the filtration traction Centre, like the filtration systems, even here in Denmark. So they're flushed out of the toilet actually directly into our oceans. So if they have a plastic stem, if they have a woody stem, it doesn't matter, it will go all the way through. And so it had like a double negative impact on the world.
Will Richardson 03:43
That's, that's interesting. And so when you were looking at this product, you obviously looked at the environmental impact, as you say, on your website, and you absolutely categorically want to make sure that I guess I'm forming likenesses to the plastic bag and the paper bag. So lots of people are trying to go oh, we're more environmental, but so use a paper bag when in fact, if you look at the life cycle, you're better off using the plastic bag than you are the paper bag. And that was what immediately came to mind when I read what you were putting out. Because I think that's what you don't want to happen, do you? You don't want something to be more innovative commerce, environmental when it actually isn't.
Isabel Aagaard 04:32
Exactly. And that's such a good example. Because there's a lot about perception in this green, sustainable area where you would think that something made of cardboard or something made of paper is just much better than alternatives. And it's not necessarily correct. And that's why when we create products, it's not up to the consumers to do all this research. We have to really figure out how can we create products that actually make a difference. Those are not greenwashing, they are not just a perception of something that could be better. And it's so important because I think that in the next 10 years, we'll see so many sustainable brands that will be showing all these things that they think are so sustainable, and they may not be. And then you use years of your life using a product that maybe is worse for the environment than what you had before.
Will Richardson 05:26
Yeah, absolutely. And so, on that note, what would you say your business superpower was?
Isabel Aagaard 05:33
Well, I think we have a very simple mission. And single-use items in general, in all aspects, are just not good for the environment. It's not something that's been around for 1000s of years, we've only had it for the last 100, sometimes 50 years. So it's a habit that is, can be hard to change. But I think that through design through what we know best, we can make that habit, that change very easy. And then we have a very simple message.
Will Richardson 06:06
How do you, I guess, promote or talk about that purpose?
Isabel Aagaard 06:11
In the beginning, we talked a lot about facts. We found numbers, I think that people like to understand and like to have that 1000/3000, to have that understanding of a product, because it's not something that you do every day, it's you know, oh, I used one cotton swab fine. But throughout a year, if you've used hundreds, then that accumulates to a lot. And I think sometimes we have to really communicate that, communicate that this is, this is a habit that maybe will seem small for you. But if you stick to it, if this becomes your new habit, then you will accumulate a huge positive impact. Instead of the negative, that was the future. And that's something that we're trying to do with numbers. It's something that we're trying to do with visualisation and words. And I think that's the real challenge, what we really want to convey.
Will Richardson 07:11
I think, what struck me about Last Object, and the way that you communicate, your message is exactly what you've just said, is that numbers, and I think that it's actually a really, it resonated with me, because I've always, and possibly many of our listeners feel the same. They look at some of these products, and the more savvy you are, from a sustainable point of view, the more skeptical you'll be with regards to environmental products or a sustainable product. So almost we'll probably change over less quickly. Because we actually want to make sure like you said, we don't want to be two, three years down the line and go, really shouldn't have to change that. That was a bit ridiculous. And so what was the methodology behind the numbers and some of the figures that you talk about?
Isabel Aagaard 08:10
The figures that we talk about. We don't want to shame everybody else, we want to talk about how good our product is, and how much if you buy this product, then you have just saved I think that's such a good and powerful word. So everything, all the numbers that we have, it's how long can our product, the different ones have different numbers, but how long will they be able to be washed? How many times how many uses can you, do we have, the different products have? So for example, our last tissue that's more than 3000, single-use tissues that you have eliminated because we know that every tissue can be washed this many times in the washing machine. And that's how we create that.
Will Richardson 08:59
It's brilliant. It's really, it's really good. And I think you were talking earlier about the fact that you've got that you came up with the figures with you and your team. And you're now getting them confirmed by a specialist.
Isabel Aagaard 09:14
Yes, exactly. I think that it's so important. We do this in our company, we do it in our design process. We have to keep going back to where we started, and then be like, is this the right way to do it? We've changed out materials in our products throughout the last two years, even though they're so young, our products because we found a new, better solution. And the same thing we have to do with our knowledge. We know this much, but now we actually have the economy to go in and actually get a consultant that is from another company that actually can go in test, measure everything in our production, put it up against everything that is in the single-use production. So I think it's really important that we talk truly, transparently and I know that my products are better. So I'm not afraid of getting the wrong answers. But I'm so excited to find out where I can improve.
Will Richardson 10:08
Yeah. I mean, I think that's it, isn't it? Things change on such a regular basis in this world, and in this space, in this industry, because you've got a lot of clever people behind the scenes, looking at the lifecycle of different and alternative products out there that impact, particularly organisations like yourselves who are using a particular material for something. And then in a year's time, someone goes, actually, you can use this material, and it's half the carbon, and it's lighter as well. So therefore, transport is even easier.
Isabel Aagaard 10:46
Will Richardson 10:49
And how do you engage your staff, suppliers and customers with your mission and purpose?
Isabel Aagaard 10:54
We engage them through so many things like we're actually testing out a lot of different ways of engaging and connecting from the very beginning when we did a Kickstarter on Last Swab. I was amazed at our Instagram account, and how much people talked about us and how much people want to reach out and wanted and had questions about the materials had questions about shipping, you know, that people were very, very engaged. I've done a lot of different other design companies, and I've never had this engagement. So I think that it naturally in the sustainable world. There are so many people that have so many questions, they have so many ideas, knowledge, and I think this is amazing. So they became very quickly and also our first backers on Kickstarter, they became the creators, and also like, they co-created the different designs with us throughout the journey. And Kickstarter in itself is also an amazing platform to engage with the backers. And because they've already said I love this product, I want to have it, can we have it in red? Wouldn't it be fun if you did this in a home version, you know, so they, really are invested, and they want to be part of the design process. And they became, and we've created products on the back of other people's wants because they bought something else from us. And also part of why we are calling the different colours, and by different instincts, species names, you know, it's everything is co-created with our users, but Instagram, Facebook, Kickstarter platform, newsletters, you know, yeah, we're actually trying to do as much as we can.
Will Richardson 12:45
It's, it sounds like it. When running an ethical and sustainable business. What would you say your biggest struggle so far has been? And can you tell us a bit about how you've overcome it?
Isabel Aagaard 12:54
There's so many different struggles. I think that we're right now in the world in general, of course, there's a big demand for sustainable and green items, which is awesome, and why we even exist. But there's also a lot of things that we have to be very aware of, for example, when we started shipping out our first Kickstarter campaign, we had three different warehouses, we thought this through we were like, We are not going to send, you know, packages by plane. So everything was shipped by boat to three different offshore departments, or would you call like?
Will Richardson 13:34
Packing warehouses, thank you. And, then one in China, one in Europe, one in the US. And then from there, it could be shipped locally. So it was like a perfect idea, a perfect plan. But then our packages went out with plastic inside of them. Because our different shipping facilities, they just put anything and then we call them real people rage that we call them up, we're like, oh, you have to stop sending out packages where you put plastic into so that they are like snug in the package. And that's like we were against that kind of thing. And there were so many packs like we had to actually change the warehouse, because they were like, oh, what no, we don't do that. Well, no, you can't get paper you can't. Like there are a lot of things in the company where you have to be aware that sustainability or zero plastic and waste it's not on the mindset of everybody. And a lot of these challenges and also just, you know, then we failed then we had to like find a new shipping facility and they had to be able to actually support us on this mission on not putting plastic in that packaging. You know, it's such a simple and small thing, but it was actually a huge problem. And all of these like small things that we had to keep being very, very lean about was, of course, the reason why we feel something that's very strong now. And but we're still challenged, and we have to really think through, you know, even our own office, like how are we getting delivered food, you know, we can't get delivered takeaway food and plastic, you know, we have to call them up beforehand and ask them about their, how everything is packaged before we order a hamburger. And we eat no meat at the office, they're like, there's just so many things that I'm still new to this whole era, and in my life, and then and I think that also a lot of other companies are. So, it's small things and big things, but they really make a big difference.
Will Richardson 15:46
So it's really refreshing to hear. And when you say you've got three packinghouses, China, the US and Europe, and you're based in Denmark, did you look at, I don't know where your stuff is manufactured, whether it's in different places around the world, or in one particular place. But when it's manufactured, and then put together, have you looked at the transports and the environmental options of it all?
Isabel Aagaard 16:12
Exactly. And we've also made some big changes. We started out producing everything in China, which is I'm not very much against Chinese production, I think that they are very good in what they do. They're so specialised and you can get some really good factories that have been really good paperwork, and a lot of regulations that are top-notch, like better than you would get here in Europe sometimes, but we actually just moved the swab and round, last year last swab and last round to Denmark so that we could get everything produced here. And that's, that's possible now because we have sold so many swabs, that we can actually invest in an automated production facility like a little robot that goes in with the hand and takes out the products. And that's why we can still match the price that we want. And but get a higher quality. Not that it was a bad quality before but more than we can manage it better. So if something goes wrong, and we can get, you know, a big shipment where everything is a bit off that is just really, really wasteful. So having it closer to us, we can really make sure that there is not that waste. So that's in the sense of quality. And so, so yes, so now when we did that, then we started having everything shipped from Denmark, because that made sense. Now, because we have the production here, we still have some production in China. And that's why it has to like match around. And we've actually the next thing I think that we're going to do is actually start up a production facility in the US, because then we can have those two things really close to each other. But all of this is an investment. And it's also figuring out where we can make the biggest difference. And that is the next step. That is the next big difference we can make.
Will Richardson 18:13
That's brilliant. It's just complicated, isn't it? Thinking about and customers as well. And when you asked our customers all over the world, I've obviously been on your website, and it's in pounds. So therefore you're obviously selling to the UK market, all over Europe sounds like the US, as well. Asia, Australia, I mean, basically the whole world, I'm not going to go through the whole world, actually, that'd be really stupid. It would be easy to say you sell to the world. Yeah. I think it must be because that must be quite complicated. I've got a friend who runs a kite surfing brand, and they ship their kites out from China, and they try to ship without plastic. And because they were shipping on ships, shipping containers that got wet. And so you've got that added dimension of the fact that when you're shipping to customers, your products may be spoiled. How did you? I mean, how did you get around that? Or has that not happened?
Isabel Aagaard 19:14
That has actually not been an issue because we have them inside of containers. But maybe if you ship in a different way or smaller boats but we had the problem with having everything shipped from the warehouses, but we actually haven't had that many problems getting it to the warehouses.
Will Richardson 19:35
If you could offer one piece of advice for our listeners, which could help them with you know, their purpose, what would it be?
Isabel Aagaard 19:42
In sustainable terms or in startup terms?
Will Richardson 19:46
I guess well, let's tackle both because it sounds like you've got an idea for both.
Isabel Aagaard 19:51
Yeah, okay. Well, what comes to mind is that sustainable, like, being sustainable in the world that we are today, I have felt that taking one thing at a time, and it sounds so stupid because it's like, yeah, of course, but it's just if you do too many things, if you change out like 50 things in your household to be more sustainable, that will fail. Where if you take one thing at a time, and let it like, because changing sets, sort of small changes, like taking out all your single-use cotton swabs. And using now we usable one, even though it's not that much effort, you have to get used to now having a different habit, and we're habit people like we have so many habits that we are aware and not aware of. So, for example, when I started using a to-go mug, I felt that it was really nice to go out and have it and but I had to wash it. And I had to be aware, I couldn't put it in my bag, and it would leak. And, you know, there's so many small things that you had said just throughout this journey of trying to switch things out being a better version of yourself. So, that's on that, like, on the more sustainable side, I would say on the more startup side, I would say go into sustainability because it's an amazing market to be in. And it is now I don't think we'll see companies that are not sustainable in the next couple of years. And I think one of the things in our company that's been really, really successful is that we started out being three people. And we did every single part of the business us three. And I think that was so powerful. We haven't hired ourselves out of problems, we had to solve the problem, we had to sit down, take an e-course and email marketing and figure that shit out. And then we could hire somebody to take over the process because we knew what it was about, we knew what kind of guy we needed. Or girl, we knew what kind of reach we wanted, what I knew what kind of reports she gave me back because I understood the numbers. And I think that's so powerful. And where I see a lot of other startups that it gets too much, it's too much to run a whole business, you have to figure out how to do taxes, you have to figure out, you know, all these really boring things that have nothing to do with your design. And, it is a hassle. And I'm so happy that I have two amazing guys that are doing a lot of the shit work that I don't want to do. But I also, just really, I also had to take some bad, annoying tasks, and just like, you know, get through it and take that stupid, stupid e-learning book and just figure that out.
Will Richardson 22:49
And being three of you, is it hard not being one person making a decision, is it? Or is it Do you find it useful having people to bounce ideas off.
Isabel Aagaard 23:00
it's so useful and annoying at the same time. Because they don't always agree on you know, I could come with a design that I'm like, I've been working on this the whole weekend, and I'm so excited to show it and they're like, I don't really see it or, and I think it's really good to be able to critique each other and it is you know, they are family and, and we act as a family in good and bad ways. But it's necessary, especially when you have design objects, you know, you can love your own work so much, but then become an artist and then you know, go that way. But if you have to be a designer, you have to have other people also want to have that stuff.
Will Richardson 23:48
And so what are your plans? You've got Last Rounds, Last Tissue, Last Swab. What's your next kind of stuff? Or are you not allowed to say because it's top secret.
Isabel Aagaard 24:01
We have, we're gonna keep making a lot of hygiene products. I think the whole this whole achy, you know buggers and earwax, and I just love kind of creeping people out too.
Will Richardson 24:21
And make it look good at the same time.
Isabel Aagaard 24:23
Exactly. And it's like, it's a little disgusting, but I kind of want it. And I think that's a really good area to be in at some point, we'll move out and we'll tackle some other single-use items. But I think we're gonna stay here in the bathroom area for quite a while we have so many fun designs that we're working on. But that just needs, that need so much more design process. And also manufacturing because it's new kinds. We're working on some objects that are created in a whole different way than we're used to. So we have to learn new ways of producing to be able to design well.
Will Richardson 25:05
When you design a product, do you think about the disposal of it and how easy it is to dispose?
Isabel Aagaard 25:13
Yes, of course, you have to. But I think my priority is to look at the length of how long can I get this product to last? Because for me, it's important that it can be disposed of well, but that's not as important as can I get this to withhold 1000 more uses? Or can I create a design so that it won't rip? Can I add this or edit this so that it can be made in a better way so that we can do it with much higher quality? And therefore, it will have more years to live? I think that's more important than where do you dispose of it? or How can I take this from each other and, and get it all recycled? I think recycling is good. But there's a reason why you say reduce, reuse, recycle because it is in that order.
Will Richardson 26:07
Yeah, that makes sense. And recycling, it will be different in different geographical locations. And if you're selling around the world, that must make some impacts I would imagine when looking at the disposal of it.
Isabel Aagaard 26:20
Yeah, exactly. And that is, that's huge. That's also why sometimes when people ask how should I dispose of it, we're like, okay, where do you live? Because that's, I can't just actually answer that off the bat. It's so different. And even just, you know, in different regions here in Denmark, like, I live right outside of Copenhagen, and my recycling options are so different than at the office.
Will Richardson 26:49
Yeah, that sounds very similar to the UK. I'm not totally convinced it's the best way to have put recycling facilities in. It sounds like Denmark has done the same thing. Oh, yeah, let different regions choose what it is that they want to do. Rather than have the government go, right? Let's choose these recycling facilities and put them all the way around. Because that makes more sense, in my mind. But anyway.
Isabel Aagaard 27:10
Will Richardson 27:12
It confuses the hell out of people. It's really annoying. But then you look at some countries. And they, they do it so well. But Germany is very uniform, they've worked really well with the way that they've done their recycling. And they were doing that in the 80s.
Isabel Aagaard 27:26
It's so crazy. It's so crazy. My brother lives right down the road like it would take me five minutes to walk there. And he can recycle cardboard, but I can't in my part of the city. So yeah, so I actually take my cardboard to his place.
Will Richardson 27:45
And so what's the best way that we can connect with you and learn more?
Isabel Aagaard 27:48
I would say our Instagram is a great way to kind of get a sense of all our products in one and also everything that's happening. And, and then also just our website. We update all of our users and buyers of the new products but also new launches because we do create these like hypes up on to a launch where we want to kind of like with Kickstarter. So we just did a Kickstarter at the beginning of the year. And we released the products like that, which is really exciting. So you can really be like the first to have our new products if you get our newsletters and yeah.
Will Richardson 28:32
brilliant. I will make sure I subscribe and implore anyone that's listening to subscribe. Thank you so much, Isabel, for today. Thanks for being on the podcast.
Isabel Aagaard 28:41
It was so lovely. Thank you for having me.
Will Richardson 28:43
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