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Smart Thinker: The Kiwi entrepreneur turning fishing nets into furniture

Smart Thinker: The Kiwi entrepreneur turning fishing nets into furniture

An innovative sustainable furniture company uses discarded plastic fishing nets to make stylish chairs.

Smart Thinker: The Kiwi entrepreneur turning fishing nets into furniture

On a beach in Indonesia, Richard Shirtcliffe experienced a moment of crisis. “We were teaching our kids to surf and it was magical – apart from all the plastic that was washing up around them,” he explains.

The successful Kiwi businessman, who was the CEO for Tuatara Brewery and Coffee Supreme, says that it was this moment that woke him up to the world’s environmental crisis and forced him to examine his own role in it all.

“I had this crisis of confidence about whether any of the things I’d been doing in my career were worth anything. When all’s said and done, will my kids be proud of me? I began to think they probably wouldn’t.”

Leaving Indonesia, Shirtcliffe set out to find a way to turn the plastic he saw washing up on the beach into something meaningful. “I thought I might be able to use what I’d learnt along the way to tackle the big issues of the day.”

The driving factor, he says, was moving the focus away from creating wealth for shareholders, to creating health for people and the planet.

Partnering with friend and business partner Richard Cutfield, from design studio Formway, he set out to reimagine residential furniture and founded noho.

The first step was figuring out how to use the plastic he saw washed up on the beach in the manufacturing of furniture.

Abandoned fishing gear, also known as ‘ghost gear’ poses one of the biggest environmental threats to the ocean. A recent Greenpeace report found that an estimated 640,000 tonnes of abandoned or lost fishing equipment enters the ocean every year.

In total, it makes up 10 per cent of the plastic waste in oceans, threatening marine life all over the world. Through the power of collaboration, noho found a new purpose for this waste.

“It was a revelation when we realised what could prove to be the ‘Dyson’ of chairs could be made from up-cycled waste such as fishing gear,” says Shirtcliffe.

“We found a company called Aquafil that was pioneering the process of turning reclaimed fishing nets into a raw state,” explains Shirtcliffe. “We tested it out and lo and behold it performed outstandingly well.”

Shirtcliffe says this vision of sustainability goes beyond the furniture, filtering through every aspect of their business.

“We’ve been determined right from the get-go that everything about this business would live up to sustainable practices – that means using recycled raw materials in our products, recycled packaging, manufacturing in New Zealand to access as much renewable energy as we can, and planning for circularity of the product lines so we can avoid being part of the problem.”

Shirtcliffe admits committing to this sustainable challenge wasn’t easy. “Even when it could have been a lot quicker and cheaper, we refused to compromise on these things. If you’re going to set off with big, audacious goals then you’ve got to own it.”

Another pioneering aspect of noho is the design. Shirtcliffe says he sees the entire home as fertile territory for reinvention.

“If you think about the kind of furniture we sit on or lean into [in the home], it hasn’t really changed since the first furniture was made,” he points out. “As humans, we’re born to move; our neural pathways are built by movement when we’re infants. Everything about us is moving and when we do one single thing for too long, it’s not good for our physiology.

“So how about we create surfaces that allow our bodies to move the way they were born to?”

With its innovative design, Shirtcliffe says the noho ‘move’ chair paves the way for a more dynamic kind of home furniture, built around a central hub.

“We work from home, the kids do crafts, we socialise – we saw this opportunity to create a piece of furniture that could support all those activities, all the postures they demand and create real dynamic comfort.”

Since launching earlier this year, the company has been awarded an Honorable Mention in US business magazine Fast Company’s World Changing Ideas 2020 awards.

Although based in Colorado, Shirtcliffe says his Kiwi roots are very much a part of noho and it is represented in the name of the brand. “I couldn’t think of a better way to extol the best of Aotearoa’s values to the world than by leading with te reo, which I have a deep and abiding respect for,” he says.

“To sit, to stay, to dwell, to live – the meaning is perfect for what we’re trying to do.”

As he looks ahead at the future of noho, Shirtcliffe says he’s holding on to the idea that first formed on the beach in Indonesia.

“The greatest success for me is that at some point in the future we run out of raw material because we’d done such a great job. I can’t see that happening in my lifetime, but never say ‘never’.”

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